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Is a SFD the ultimate way to iterate to higher quality?

If you want the best results across your business, create a culture of ego-less constructive feedback, says Glenn Elliott.

“Grand Masters don’t fall from the sky”. That’s one of my boyfriend’s favourite sayings, and he’s right – if you want something to be good, it’s going to take work.

We know this as iteration – the master of perfection. That’s what’s behind everything we know as iconic. Look at Barbour, the trendy coat brand. They didn’t invent the paraffin waxed cotton that is the core component of their range. But they perfected the process of making it more wearable and, ultimately, popular.

Do you think Apple invented touchscreen technology? Far from it, but they iterated on other rival tech products to become the market leader. And fun fact – it took the singer Pharrell 10 attempts before he landed on the final version of ‘Happy’.

How do you embed a culture of iteration into your organisation and drive your teams to the highest standard possible? One way is to introduce the ‘SFD’ – ‘Sh*tty First Draft’.

It’s simple. Any piece of work – document, presentation, piece of software, process, contract, template, marketing collateral – is a SFD first time. No matter who did it or how much time they spent.

When everyone in your business thinks of everything they do as an SFD, you open up collective collaboration and improvement.

The magic of the SFD

The SFD does two powerful things. When you say to a colleague, boss or peer, “have a look at my SFD and tell me what you think”, you’re taking the sting out of potential criticism. It takes the pressure off you as the originator.

It invites the reviewer to offer their second brain and pair of eyes. It’s a stark difference from the normal way we ask for comments on work, where there is often the implication we just want a rubber stamp of approval.

Some might think the SFD is counterproductive to another popular work mantra, GSD (get sh*t done) – but actually, it supports that. When you have lots of ideas, you don’t want to spend months making everything perfect. If you can get to the collaboration point earlier, you’ve invested less in it. Someone might point out something obvious that makes the whole project not feasible. If you do a quick SFD and someone can do that, there’s no need to go any further.

The art of asking for feedback

Some people might also see the SFD as being more work – too many cooks and all that. But life is not a democracy. Just because you have asked for feedback doesn’t mean you need to implement all of it. Otherwise, you’ll end up with something really average because it’s the average of everyone’s ideas. You want it to be the height of everyone’s ideas, and the arbiter of that is you – the person owning the project.

For example, last week, I was on a coaching call with one of our CEOs. He said it was the first time he’d been a private equity CEO and didn’t know what was expected. And I realised we never give our CEOs a job description.

So I wrote one and shared it with six of my ex-CEO colleagues. I said, ‘here’s a SFD of a CEO’s job description – help me make it better.’ A friend sent me his version, and out of 50 bullet points, there were only two I used. I was grateful for those two, but ultimately, that job description is going to have my name on it. So it needs to be the best version I believe in with the feedback I have chosen to integrate.

Because even though I’m a huge advocate of the SFD, time is expensive, so you need to be mindful of asking people for it. You could cost somebody one or two hours, so it’s not fair to ask more people than you have time to digest feedback from. So be respectful, and don’t ask 25 people – stick to a few. If you receive lots of suggestions, go for the big wins.

Avoid the echo chamber

Don’t forget to think about the types of people you’re asking – colleagues with different experiences and mindsets. There’s no point having three of you in the loop.

Here’s another example. A few years ago, I was horrified by the state of my own company’s US employment contract. We’d bought it from a payroll company, and it was horrible – it made all of our staff look like criminals – so I rewrote it. I chose a person from our sales team to be my reviewer because she was well known for hating contracts and finding them really difficult to understand.

My goal was for her to understand it and happily sign it. I would craft what I thought was the most beautiful paragraph, and she would read it and have no idea what I was talking about. It made me work harder to develop what would work best for our teams. The moral of the story? Pick your toughest critic.

SFD is not just about process – it’s about culture

Maybe the SFD is not for everyone. You might be a high achiever who can pre-empt what others are going to say to produce a polished first draft. That’s ok, but that’s not the kind of person I want to work with. If you could give me eight high-achieving know-it-alls, or eight people with less experience but a hunger to learn, I would choose the second group because, as a team, we’d get further.

This approach might not also fit some company cultures. I come from a tech company where we spent a decade trying to be at the leading edge of HR, so that was all about admitting our weaknesses, talking about what we’re not good at and being vulnerable. The SFD does assume that you’re ok to not be perfect and always do perfect work, so you have to be in a culture where that’s the norm.

But if you think about it, what’s the goal? To make things better, create the best product/service, and use the collective talent and perspective of the people around you. Which organisation doesn’t want that? Doesn’t every strategy start off as a SFD?

If you’re reading this and thinking the SFD doesn’t fit your company culture, then that might be the first place to look. Because feedback and collaboration are what open the door to improvement, and that is the true value of iteration. Just ask John Barbour, Steve Jobs, and of course, Pharrell.


Picture of Glenn Elliott

Glenn Elliott

Glenn is a serial entrepreneur with over 20 years of CEO experience. He sold his last business, Reward Gateway, to PE three times. His skills are in product, engineering, sales and marketing, and his passions are leadership, company culture, employee engagement and social justice. In 2018, he wrote the Amazon HR Bestseller, Build it: A Rebel Playbook for World-Class Employee Engagement.
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