Steve Jobs was legendary for a lot of things -- one was the value he placed on brutal honesty. That translated not only into him being sometimes painfully honest with those who worked for him. It also meant he demanded others tell him the unvarnished truth about what was going wrong at the companies where he worked.

But how exactly did he get employees to open up to the boss? People are naturally reluctant to bring leaders bad news, after all, which means simply asking for feedback in an open-ended way rarely works well. Jobs knew all about how uncomfortable people can be bearing bad news, so he came up with a clever way to extract honest appraisals from his teams. Silicon Valley storytelling guru Andy Raskin explained the method in a recent Medium post (hat tip to Business Insider for the pointer).

Raskin heard about the technique in an unusual way, he reports: he overheard an older, famous CEO relate a story about Jobs to a younger, also famous CEO he was mentoring in a San Francisco cafe (specifically Just for You Café in the Dogpatch neighborhood, if you're hoping to run into a couple of CEOs yourself). The idea boils down to just two questions.

The technique was born of Jobs' need to get quick, honest feedback during the period in the 80s when he was splitting his time between Apple and Pixar. As he was leading two companies, he didn't have time to waste sorting through rambling or sugarcoated feedback. So here's what he did, as Raskin heard it (emphasis mine):

"He would arrange sessions with all the different teams--the Cars team, the technology team, whatever--so there were a dozen or so people in each one. Then he would point to one person in each session and say: 'Tell me what's not working at Pixar... '"

"That person might offer something like, 'The design team isn't open to new technology we're building.' Jobs would ask others if they agreed. He would then choose someone else and say: Tell me what's working at Pixar.'"

According to Older Famous CEO, Jobs would alternate between the two questions until he felt like he had a handle on what was going on.

Can getting brutally honest feedback really be this simple?

Apparently, that same CEO claimed to have adopted the technique with much success. Rankin followed suit, adapting it to use with a workshop he was giving a few days later, also with great success.

"If you work with teams in any way, I recommend trying Jobs's technique," Raskin concludes.

Published on: May 23, 2018