Peer 1:1s

Using Randomness to Strengthen Your Team

For many of the most inspiring leaders that I know, 1:1s with folks on their teams are sacred: the same time each week, at least 30 minutes, without fail. But what happens when you’re unavailable (e.g., traveling, or on an extended vacation) and still want folks to have someone to talk to? What if you also want to deepen relationships and improve the flow of feedback on your team? Peer 1:1s, set up randomly, can help!

Yet another 1:1 meeting?

Some of the most valuable feedback comes directly from the people that you work with most closely, ideally on a daily basis. If you are a developer or designer, you may already be getting timely, actionable feedback your team practices peer code or design reviews. However, these kinds of work-product reviews typically don’t offer an opportunity to ask and receive the kind of individual feedback that we could all use, for instance:

  • What are my strengths (what should I do more)?
  • Where can I improve?
  • How can I communicate better?
  • On a scale of 1-10, how much do you trust me?
  • What can I do to improve your work and life?

In fact, in most companies, there is no venue for such direct and timely feedback between peers. Managers are often conduits for feedback between individuals, however this can easily devolve into a game of broken telephone. Your company may be collecting some of this feedback from your peers as part of the review process. Unfortunately, this happens far too infrequently to be truly useful--feedback, like milk, has an expiration date, after which it turns sour and is best discarded. (That reviews happen so infrequently is also good news, because the vast majority of review processes are broken beyond repair and should be abandoned. I’ll explore alternatives to the typical review process in an upcoming post.)

Setting up peer 1:1s

If you let a little randomness help you, it’s simple:

  1. pick two people at random;
  2. find an open 30-minute time slot on their calendars;
  3. find (and book) a place for them to meet, in person or virtually; and
  4. pick a few questions at random from Jason Evanish’s list of 101 1:1 questions or Seth Godin's What's Next?

You may also choose to have an executive assistant or the people themselves do steps 2 and 3. To make things even simpler for whoever is running the peer 1:1 process, I’ve open-sourced a Google Apps Script that we’ve used at Next Big Sound along with a Google Spreadsheet that can get you to randomly pair people in no time. (Pull requests are most welcome!)

Why use randomness?

First, it’s much quicker than manually optimizing the pairings, especially in larger teams. Second, the risk of randomly selecting folks who under no circumstances should be in the same room--or randomly selecting questions that should never be asked--is also fairly low in most organizations. Of course, if something is not right, you can always re-run the randomizer. Most important, randomness often produces inspired choices (of both people and questions) that you would not think to make. Here are some recent peer 1:1 pairings and questions at Next Big Sound:

  • two engineers who’ve been working quite closely recently discussing what “the company [is] not doing today that we should do to better compete in the market”;
  • a UX Designer and a Systems Engineer who’ll be talking about the latter’s “biggest time wasters”; and
  • a Data Journalist and our VP of Operation who might share their tips “for getting unstuck”.

The benefits of peer 1:1s

Peer 1:1s may be a little uncomfortable at first, especially for folks who may not know each other well. This is why we only pair people who opt into the process, and also make what is discussed during these 1:1s confidential. This is also one of the main benefits of peer 1:1s--they help connect individuals who may not have an opportunity to frequently interact at work in a relaxed, low-risk setting. While these folks may not share much (yet), they do have in common the experience of working at the same company, or perhaps even with the same manager. The few random leading questions--and the shared discomfort of being selected at random--are great starting points for the conversation!

If the paired individuals do happen to work together more closely, peer 1:1s turn into a forum to offer each other direct and timely feedback, and strengthen existing relationships. Finally, peer 1:1s give folks some experience of what it’s like to run 1:1s as a manager, and may inform their decision to pursue a career in management (or run away screaming).

Of course, peer 1:1s are not meant to be substitutes for “regular” 1:1s. (Rands’ The Update, The Vent, and The Disaster is the classic post on why such 1:1s are so important to the health of the organization.) But they do give people who opt in a meaningful opportunity to strengthen the organization in only 30 minutes a week.

UPDATE (October 30, 2015): After I originally published this blog post, I found out that a number of organizations are practicing random peer 1:1s. Most notably, Etsy does this across the entire organization, and has open-sourced a helpful tool, Mixer, for making such "assisted serendipity" happen.