The 10/50/99% Approach to Feedback

And how it reduces the odds you frustrate your team to the brink of leaving

Waaaaay back, when I was a freelance web design/dev, I made a website for a water filtration company. Super exciting right? I was young, and to be honest didn’t even know what they did.

The CEO and I were on the same page at the start: they just wanted a cool website. So did I — and I went off and made it. Fuelled by my passion for the latest design trends and the most up-to-date dev standards I came up with three amazing options. Masterpieces, in my head.

And then it happened, right near the end, every designer’s worst nightmare.

The CEO asked me to “make one small change” and add in an ugly design decision to turn my masterpiece from great to god-awful.

And it was awful… and frustrating. It was like every Dilbert cartoon you’ve ever seen where the CEO swoops in at the last minute and ruins everything.

From that moment on I hated that website and project. I just wanted to be done with the contract ASAP. For years, I looked back at that CEO and thought, “Why on EARTH was he trying to control the design… if he’s paying me to be the designer!? He knows NOTHING about the design!”

Fast forward and I’m now the CEO, running SoapBox (the first app managers) in its earliest years. I had team members who are rock stars in their various roles showing me their work, and asking for feedback… and then I noticed it: I was making their masterpieces god-awful.

They’d work hard for weeks and slave over every detail and then they would show me the final results. And I was the one ruining their work at the last minute.

There was no way around it — I could see it on their faces. I remembered making that exact same face. But what was happening? I wasn’t a bad guy. I wasn’t trying to ruin everything… but I was.

Their work was great but it was askew from what “our” masterpiece needed to be. So I was offering solutions when I saw it — “hmm, something off, try changing this one thing…” — It was my attempt to band-aid the symptoms to a problem I didn’t know we had: they were missing the big picture of the project.

So, the next time I noticed an “askew masterpiece” I didn’t try to fix it. I shared the missing context. And guess what? IT WAS WORSE. This time it actually caused tears.

The message I was effectively sending them went from, “Fix this one thing” to “Everything you’ve done over the past weeks is wrong.” Oops.

The context was good, but the timing was wrong. I needed to give them harsh feedback on the vision of the project while the project was still early and moldable.

And for that to happen, my team needed to invite me in much earlier, even though it felt super counterintuitive to them (after all, you don’t show a teacher an unfinished assignment at school, do you?).

This is when the 10/50/99% approach saved me. It gave me a way in. It saved people from getting upset and allowed me to share the missing context at the right moment.

To bring the story full circle, it was at this point that I figured out why the water filtration guy forced me to make his website ugly: he wanted it to match his trucks. I want to say, “I wish he told me that sooner,” but really it was on me to gather that context at the start or get feedback as I went, not wait until the last possible moment to show him a near-finish project.

With that, here’s a how a simple framework can save you from making your team cry.

Now, a huge disclaimer: I didn’t invent this. I am confident that I read about 10/50/99% feedback somewhere about 10 years ago. I remember it clearly, but cannot find it on Google. It’s also been written about once or twice and those might be helpful reads too.

What exactly is 10/50/99% feedback?

Let’s pretend each project can be broken into three basic phases: 10%, 50% and 99% done.

10% done — Basically not done at all

50% done — Where the core components are coming together

99% done — Where we are double checking spelling, grammar, etc.

10/50/99% feedback corresponds to the feedback you’d share at each of those stages.

And here’s the important part: the only feedback you can give in the 10% stage is 10% feedback. You can never give 10% feedback at the 99% stage. And visa versa: you can never give 99% feedback at the 10% stage.

The idea behind this approach is how much time and energy this type of feedback saves us. It’s a common language that we all use to hold each other accountable. For example:

Designer shows us a sketch for a landing page. “I’m at the 10% stage.”

Team member points to a typo. “This is misspelled..”

Literally everyone else in the room. “This is at 10%. Save that for later.”

So what exactly is at each stage? Read on to learn more…

The 10% stage (This is just the beginning)

The earliest stage in any project is the 10% stage. This is when a project is a sketch. An outline. A bulleted list. A brief. Sometimes it can take you 10 minutes to get here.

At this stage, there’s nothing “good” to show. And it’s the trickiest feedback to give because people don’t like to show their worst work to their peers or managers.

I find this is especially challenging for more junior employees: how do you show a 10% complete project and have it look cool? It hurts because it feels like you’re showing unfinished work. How do you make your teammates see the viability of the project without fine-tuning it too much? It’s a delicate dance — you want someone to bring you the worst version of the concept.

The work and the person is in a very psychologically “unsafe” space, so you have to be delicate and deliberate with what type of feedback you’re sharing… screw this up and you’ll never get another chance. Literally.

Of all the stages, this is where feedback-givers get it wrong the most — and that’s probably why employees have so much trouble sharing projects at this stage in the first place.

For example, if a designer puts up an initial mock-up and the first thing the senior designer says is, “The logo isn’t centered with proper padding!” That leads to the designer to think, “my boss thinks I’m a bad designer. They don’t think I put enough work in at this point. They don’t think I was paying enough attention.” So they’ll want to do a better job next time — and all of a sudden the first view of a project will be a Hi-Fi mockup in colour at the 10% meeting. For non-designers, it’s basically a near-finished product.

At the 10% stage you should be giving feedback on the vision and direction that the work is headed. It should be easy for them to scrap the current direction without all their hard work going down the drain. No one’s feelings should be hurt if the room decides, “you know what, this whole idea is a waste of time.”

Because the 10% stage is when you can — and should! — debate the project itself.

  • What’s the goal of this project?
  • What’s the desired outcome?
  • Why are we doing this project at all?

At the 10% stage, you should debate all of this. This is the time to find the common language, direction and vision that will drive the project from here on out. And by locking this in early on in the process, you’re saving yourself (and your team) from painful and unnecessary debates later on that can derail the project. In other words: if people want to debate the brief of this project, they need to speak now or forever hold their peace.

Pro Tip: Take notes of the decisions you’re making here. You’ll regret it later if you don’t. You’ll need them if people try to change direction later.

And that’s what you want, after all: As CEO, you want to debate the concept. Because that’s where you CAN debate. Where you CAN add value.

As your team gets deeper into the stages of the project, you should, ideally, have less and less feedback to give. Because you aren’t the expert in the work — they are. They should know more about grammar than you. They should know more about design principles than you.

As a leader, where you can and should be offering feedback is at this earliest stage where you can steer misaligned ideas in the right direction. It’s a lot cheaper to do this now than later on.

At this stage, the right feedback sounds like:

  • “The scope of the project looks too big for what we’re looking for — we’re looking for a quick win.”
  • “There are a few other companies who have done a really good job at solving this problem. I like how they did it, let’s evaluate them.”
  • “We want this to look really cool vs. function really well.”

And you might leave this meeting saying something like, “Let’s pursue these [two] directions and decide on the final one at 50%.”

The 50% stage (You’re halfway there!)

This is the first draft. The colourless mockup. And if you think the 10% stage is hard for employees to throw up on a big screen and show to the team, the 50% stage can be worse — because you’re intentionally showing your unfinished work.

You’ll have typos or placeholder images and text. Big chunks of the project might get debated and moved around. But that’s what you want to do: confirm the direction, debate the skeleton, have an argument about the flow of an article or experience — without getting lost in the grammar and spelling.

Again: If you provide feedback on the details here, you’ll ruin it. People will assume your comments are criticisms rather than feedback. They’ll start showing up with three fully complete versions and just ask you to pick one. They’ll tune out of the conversation. They’ll be frustrated. You’ve got to get this right.

When you approach feedback at this stage, pull out what you documented in the 10%. Look at the vision and direction that you agreed on as a team and react to whether or not the 50% is aligned to those discussions. In other words, is your vision and direction being seen in this tangible product?

During the 50% stage, you’ll likely find yourself thinking things like:

  • Is this what we pictured?
  • Is the product going in the right direction? Does it share our vision?
  • Is this what we all wanted and agreed on in our 10%?
  • Are we excited about seeing the finished product?

This is the tricky middle stage, where the direction and goal is no longer up for debate — but we’re still not at the stage where you’d get nitpicky about words. Here, you’re looking at the overall structure or layout. This is also the right stage to get feedback from other departments or teams, if needed. At this point, the project is far along enough for other departments to get a clear sense of the goals and brief, but there’s still time to actually implement any feedback they might have.

Pro tip: Have the person leading the project say:

“Hey, this is at the 50% stage. The goals we agreed to for the project are:

  1. Goal one
  2. Goal two
  3. Goal three

We’re at the halfway mark of this project and the feedback we’re looking for and feel would be MOST valuable at this stage is

  1. Feedback example one
  2. Feedback example two
  3. Feedback example three”

99% stage (This is the last chance for feedback)

This is when a project is juuuust about to ship. It’s a blog post right before you hit “Publish.” It’s a landing page just getting its final bits of sparkle. It’s the stage where you’re dying to just ship the thing, and it seems next to impossible to wait patiently for the necessary stakeholders to take one final look…

The 99% stage is all about the little details. It’s finally time to be nitpicky.

  • Do the links work?
  • Are we properly tracking the metrics we need to?
  • Are there any typos?
  • Are there any bugs?

This is not a place to go back and debate goals or structure. That’s been dealt with and settled. Go back to the notes and point that out if people challenge you.

This is where all that nitpicky feedback that people loooooove to give throughout the project is finally welcome. You see a spelling error? Great! That spacing looks a few millimetres off? Awesome! This is the stage where most of the feedback should be coming from the team (a.k.a. the experts) rather than the leader.

In fact, if you’ve got a team you trust and who are good… Skip this stage. You don’t need to be there. Trust them to do their jobs. Hold them accountable, sure, but you don’t need to micromanage this stuff.

However, this can also be a challenging phase. Throughout the whole project, everyone has been dying to give 99% feedback at the wrong time. And now that it’s the appropriate time for it, people can be hell-bent on reviving 10% feedback all over again. Your job as a leader is simply to make sure they don’t do that.

99% feedback can sometimes feel like a nightmare for the person receiving it. Their brain might shut off, they’ll go on autopilot and start making all the changes people are telling them to. Your job here might just be to remind them of the project goals so they can parse the good feedback from the bad.

Why 10/50/99% is so hard (and so easy)

This approach to feedback is hard for a few reasons.

Everyone is naturally scared of 10% and 50% feedback because it’s painful to show unfinished work to the people you want to impress.

It makes sense that employees have this fear — all through school you do projects or papers and get graded on the finished project.

Now all of a sudden you have to untrain yourself and bring in people from the very beginning and be prepared to have projects get scrapped before anyone really saw what you were truly capable of.

As a leader, it’s on you to foster a psychologically safe space where your team feels comfortable sharing their work at every stage of this process. When you achieve this, the results are phenomenal. People will feel more comfortable sharing their work, as well as their opinions.

It’s hard for any leader because, in my experience, we have a really hard time relegating our feedback to the right stages — i.e. shutting up about the spelling mistakes in the 10% stage.

Also, it’s hard because everyone else is also terrible at giving feedback. It’s a trained skill that most people assume comes naturally. And, people often confuse constructive feedback (a.k.a. Radical Candor) with needlessly harsh, out-of-context criticism. People might think it’s ok to be harsh because they’re being open and honest — but they’re not the same thing. And being overly harsh, or giving the wrong feedback at the wrong stage is only going to fuel employee’s fears to embrace this process and let you in early-on. As a result, the level of psychological safety present in your team diminishes.

Tips for 10/50/99% feedback

After several years of using this approach (and preaching it to everyone at SoapBox), I’ve learned a few lessons. Here’s a few tips to help you make 10/50/99% work for you and your team.

I’ve already mentioned this, but it bears repeating. And you will repeat it again. And again. And again. Because this is the hardest thing for people to wrap their heads around. For this type of feedback to work, everyone needs to hold each other accountable to giving the right feedback at the right time. That means pushing back when feedback doesn’t align to stage. Every single time.

For this to work, your team has to trust that you won’t ruin their vision. And as a manager, you need to trust that your team won’t ignore all the feedback you’ve just shared. This foundation takes time to build, but it’s worth the work. You might want them to read this article before implementing the process so you’re all on the same page.

This goes two ways, if an employee showed the 10% feedback and you weren’t there. Too bad. The spice must flow (any Dune fans out there?). Instead, catch up on their 10% decisions and move on to 50% feedback… Or admit your mistakes and beg them to reboot the entire project from scratch because you weren’t able to manage your time.

However, if it’s the first time your seeing something you should be allowed to give 10% feedback. Just be very clear about why, “we never had a chance to debate the 10% stuff, so I’m going to share my 10% feedback now. Next time let’s make sure we do this at the start”.

One final note on feedback…

As a leader, be clear on the type of feedback you’re giving.

This is a big one, and I’ll write more about it in a later post. But here’s the gist: As the boss you wield a lot of power. When you offer a piece of feedback, your team might take it as law. Which is sometimes great, but in other cases it can be detrimental. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner has a great post on this.

That’s why it’s important to be clear about the type of feedback you’re giving, when you’re giving it. My own personal taxonomy of feedback types (based on Jeff’s) is as follows:

This feedback is exactly what it sounds like — just a thought. Just a passing thought that happened to be in my brain and came out of my mouth while I was standing beside you. This is not feedback that should ever change the course of a project unless it sparks something inside you.

This is one person’s opinion. This is me offering my own point of view, not as the leader of this company, but as a fellow human with an interest in this project. It should be honoured and evaluated with the same deference as any other team member’s feedback.

As Jeff puts it, “This is more than one person’s opinion, but still falls short of telling the team what to do.” This type of feedback is still just O.P.O., but it happens to be the opinion of someone who maybe learned this lesson the hard way. But that doesn’t mean the team can’t push back and overrule it.

This is the boss telling the team what to do. Plain and simple. Sometimes a necessary evil, but not to be used excessively.

That’s it! A tour of the way we give feedback at SoapBox.

What do you think of the 10/50/99% approach? Wanna give it a try at your company? I’d love to know!

CEO, Co-Founder of @SoapBoxHQ. I split my time between the Business, the Tech, and @mrsmceachran

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