Peer One on Ones: How to Unlock Great Collaboration Across Teams

“…The team appears to be more energized and I’m finding myself more confident in leading each individual.

I’ve also extended the format to include PMs who I work with closely to also touch base and to achieve a similar outcome of trust building and alignment. So far it’s been positive.”

A Design Director wrote that to me after he started one-on-ones with his team and had an epiphany: the same results he’s had with his team could be had with others he works with regularly.

But if they aren’t your direct reports on your team, can you really have a one-on-one with them?  Yes, and they’re called Peer One on Ones.

Peer one on ones help you better connect with others on your team that you don't directly manageThe Power of Peer One on Ones

It’s amazing how easy it is to work regularly with someone and not really know them. Yet, it happens all the time. It’s very easy to make a working relationship completely transactional: What do you need from me and what do I need from you? Great. Moving on…

While no one likes pointless meetings, peer one on ones have a ton of untapped value that make them worth considering for those you work with often. Consider these reasons when thinking about starting peer one on ones:

1) Build more cohesive cross functional teams.

Anyone that you interact with regularly on another team is a good candidate for a peer one on one and in particular here’s ones I’ve seen work well:

  • Any pairing of a Product Manager, Designer, and Engineer, especially team leads.
  • A Marketer and Designer that work together on projects
  • Product people and Customer Success (more on this below)
  • Sales and Customer Success leaders
  • Marketing and Sales managers

The point is to talk to those you have to hand off work to, receive work from, collaborate with, or negotiate resources from. In any of those cases, more candid conversations will help reveal problems and opportunities.

A Peer One on One success: Product + Customer Success = Happy Launches

When I ran product at a company previously in my career, I tried to informally talk to many people in the company, so I could understand product needs as well as how the product team impacted them. One such group, who is often overlooked at companies, was the Customer Success team.

In one such conversation, I learned how difficult new feature launches were for them. They often got very little notice and had to drop everything to write documentation in time for marketing’s launch for features they often didn’t know much about. Despite telling them my door was always open, I was oblivious to this problem until I made time to meet and ask them about it.

To remedy this, I started giving those writing the documentation a few extra days warning pre-launch. I also worked to help them understand why we built it by sharing some information that before was only shared with the product team. Finally, I emailed some quick bullet points of what I thought would be important to include in the documentation.

This simple set of changes was huge for them. It only took a little extra thought and a few minutes of work by me, and it dramatically improved how customer success felt about product launches and the quality of their documentation at launch. It also built more trust and confidence that they could bring up issues with me and we’d do something about it.

2) Fix inter-team problems.

Like the story above, there are always problems and opportunities for improvement when you have teams collaborating on work.  By creating a private, candid meeting, you have the opportunity to finally discuss those problems that otherwise get pushed off in the name of “moving fast” or “just getting done with this.”

These kinds of problems fester. And they grow. And they become resentment. And the last thing you want is different teams in your organization pitted against one another throwing each other under the bus, yet it happens all time.

So instead, look at a peer one on one as a way to talk about those issues in a private, candid fashion. Listen and develop empathy for their world view and challenges.  You may not be able to fix everything, but even small improvements can really improve morale and how well you and your teams collaborate.

3) Generate ideas to do things better.

Sometimes it’s not about burning problems and pains. Instead, it’s about thinking about how you can make things better or do things differently at your company. Especially at growing startups, there’s always things breaking and two leaders in a company like you and your peer are just the people to improve things for yourselves.

A peer one on one is a great place to talk through blue ocean ideas to see if doing something totally different could make things better at your company or on your teams. I’m sure you’ve hoped to have time do this before and it’s unlikely you’ve had any other time to do it, since calendars are so easy to fill with short-term work.

If you take a peer one on one this direction, I highly recommend this talk by the legendary John Cleese on being creative. It will help you get in the right mindset to throw wild ideas out and really explore bold alternatives to the status quo.

4) Commiserate with your peers.

Being a manager can be lonely. You deal with all the challenges and personalities on your team and spend a lot of time managing up as well.  There are few people that understand and empathize with what you go through every day. This is where your fellow managers and leads can be uniquely qualified to commiserate with you and possibly even share tactics you haven’t tried in certain situations.

Sometimes just having another friendly ear to trade stories and challenges with can be enough to boost your own morale and help you feel a little less alone.  Especially if you want to commiserate, getting out of the office for a walk and talk, a beer, or meal can help make it easier to be totally candid.

how to start peer one on onesThe Mechanics of Starting Peer One on Ones

You don’t need to make these super formal. Just tell your peer you’d love to meet, grab coffee, or take a walk, and talk about how you and they (and their teams if you have them) work together and what you might be able to improve working together.

How often should you have them?

It really depends on both what feels right to you and how often you work with the person; the more you work with them, the more frequent you may get value out of it. Most peer one on ones I know about occur every 4, 6, 8, or 12 weeks, depending on how often they work together and how the one on ones go.

As a product manager, I used to check in with some of the engineers I worked closest with every 2-4 weeks, while sales people and customer success was closer to 6-8 weeks.

You can also think of these as a way for people to randomly get to know each other better as DZ over at Next Big Sound has a great post on how they started random peer one on ones there.

What to talk about in a Peer One on One:

If you’re looking to get to know your colleague better and build rapport, then any of these 100+ one on one questions will work.

If you already have that relationship, then focus your discussions on how you and they work together or how your teams do.  If you can understand what their job is like and hear them out on the challenges they have, you may find out ways you or your team are making their lives difficult (like in my story above with customer success and launches).  Relieving some of that can go a long way towards helping your teams work effectively together and boost morale as they’ll feel heard.

Questions around team challenges that you can use:

  • What’s one thing we could change about our processes that would help your team?
  • Is there anything my team does that your team really likes? Why do they like it?
  • What’s the hardest thing about working with me or my team? Why?
  • What do I not know about your job that I may have an impact on?
  • What’s your biggest challenge right now for you and your team?
  • How can I help make your job easier to do?
  • Are there any interpersonal issues between anyone on your team and mine I should know about?
  • What could we do together without having to use much budget or other people to improve things for our teams?

The goal is to spark a conversation and then take action; a peer one on one is only valuable if you do something about what you discuss. Even small, incremental progress can do a lot to improve a situation and boost morale.

Have you had peer one on ones? What advice would you give to those starting them?