Archive for April, 2013

Peer Reviews – Give a Little, Gain a Lot

Oh it’s been a while since I’ve posted and so much has changed.  I’ve recently taken on a new role with my existing employer to lead an organization that is focused on the full life-cycle of IT – IT projects and Application Support, plus corporate collaboration/knowledge management just for fun because I love it!  It’s been 60 days in my new role, so it’s time to get back into writing….

In a recent team meeting, I introduced my new team of project managers, business analysts and quality assurance analysts to the practice of peer reviews.  Their first question was “what is it” and then their fears of exposure came to light.  Fair emotions as who likes to be judged?  Like many teams, this team puts their heart into what they do.  So yeah, who is going to enjoy the idea of being in front of their peers and judged for something they put their hearts into? Not me.  As this was not my first time introducing this topic to a team, I was prepared.  I believe it’s good to let the teams get this initial reaction out of their systems – then I move them towards the ultimate goal of peer reviews – learning.

Peer reviews are a great way to extend knowledge across your team members without the formality of training.  Formal training is a must-have on many topics but there may be functions that you feel your team could come to alignment on without the expense of time or money related to training.  I am also not a believer that every process should conform to a specific standard as sometimes creativity used to build deliverables can be a strength to the team.  But how do you share these creative, superior deliverables with others on the team so they might learn or be inspired to try something similar on one of their future endeavors?  And if you do have a situation where you do need 100% conformity to a standard, peer reviews can be a safer way to apply these policies than having an audit process (especially one done by a manager) defined.

Establishing a strong peer review process can be done with 3 guiding principles:

  1. No judging – by anyone
  2. Everyone plays
  3. Measure what counts

No Judging – By Anyone

Many groups in IT think about peer reviews and think of code reviews.  This is a chance to make sure standards are applied and good design practices utilized.  While this is definitely an option, you can also consider making peer reviews more about learning.  My recommendation, if applicable for a team you are growing, you might want to consider asking the team to use the model for the presenter to gain insight from their peers about other areas of the business they might be more knowledgeable about than the presenter.  The presenter can also look at the opportunity as a way to grow the business acumen of their peers and to share a technique they used that their peers may not have used before on a project.  But in this model, there is no judging – no tracking the number of mistakes made by the presenter.  No notes taken on the fixes made – unless the presenter wants to record them.  An additional concern often raised is that the presenter feels exposed if their manager is in the room.  Easy to solve – don’t be there.  I have never sat in a peer review meeting for one of my teams.  If not having me present eases the pressure on the presenter and perhaps reduces the desire of some of the audience to show off their knowledge, then it’s an easy thing for me to do for everyone.  In reality, if I am managing this team, I have access to the deliverables and I can review them anytime.  What is more important to me when growing a team is that the team feels supported by each other so they turn to each other in both the peer reviews but also through unstructured methods.

Everyone Plays

Participating in the peer review process should not become a burden for your team.  I rarely make this a requirement before the finalization of a deliverable.  Learning should be easy – not another hurdle for your team.  But if learning is important, you need to know that it’s happening often enough for your team to be growing (both as a team and in their knowledge).  So consider the frequency that peer reviews should occur, and how often you want to make it required for your team members.  And depending on the size of your teams, it may not be feasible for everyone to participate in all reviews.  This is a decision you have to make depending on the make-up and maturity of your team.  I typically opt for optional engagement BUT each person has to participate in at least 1 peer review process per month, quarter, etc.

Measure What Counts

In my model, peer reviews are about building a sense of team,  knowledge of methods that can be used in deliverables, and a start to alignment in some processes.  If this is what counts, then this is what should be measured.  Sense of team can be measured through how participation is occurring.  I do ask teams to track who is participating in each meeting so I can look for trends.  If your team members embrace this model, you’ll see that they are excited to join the meetings, and not avoiding them.  You will have outliers but those might be addressed case-by-case to find out why they are not joining the discussion.  Knowledge of methods can be explored in 1:1s by asking your team members as they produce deliverables if they are applying anything they have learned in a peer review session.  This is a great way to introduce approach planning as well if you do not discuss this with your team members already (don’t just start a deliverable but what model/methods will you use as a first step).  Finally, alignment which can be harder to measure.  This may be something you have to analyze by reviewing several deliverables.  You also have to wait for a period of time to let the peer review model work.  You may also have to seek feedback from your team in regards to areas that are very out of alignment that they would like to work on.  Once they have seen various approaches, they may be the first ones to speak up and mention that they feel a certain amount of alignment would benefit their audience.  How great would this be versus having management require alignment?  While I am not shy about requiring certain things, if I can let my team come to these concepts on their own without putting our audience/business at risk, this is method has a much higher and faster adoption rate than management telling them to do it.  And in this case, since I am managing a set of PM/BA/QA team members, doing a role that I have done in the past, it may be seen as me forcing my way onto them, which is never popular.  This way, they are finding their own way – as a team.

In Summary

Peer reviews are nothing new though I have not seen them exercised across all areas of a business nor even all areas of IT.  They are a great tool for building stronger teams, awareness to new methods, and better deliverables.  If you take a very intentional approach to introducing this topic with your team, you are bound to get great results.

Does your team use any form of peer reviews?  Are they known for being judgmental or do they facilitate positive experiences in learning and team building?  Share your stories as I would love to hear about your experiences so we can all weave them into our next opportunities to introduce this topic!

April 14, 2013 at 8:27 pm 3 comments


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