A Peer Assist is a process for bringing knowledge into a project, or piece of work, at the outset. It is a meeting, where a project team invite a number of people with relevant knowledge and experience, which they bring to bear on the issues of the project. They apply out-of-team knowledge to the team's context. It is one of the easiest and most effective ways of bringing knowledge to the point of need.
A Peer Assist meeting may take anything from a few hours to a few days, depending on the scale of the project. It should have clear objectives and deliverables (such as producing a ranked listing of risks and options, or cutting 20% off the project cost, or something similar). During the Assist, the project team will lay out their plans, objectives, issues, opportunities and challenges, and the visitors will use their knowledge and experience from similar projects to provide recommendations, options, issues and guidance. The project team are not obliged to act on the recommendations, but use them as valuable input to start the project from a greatly enhanced knowledge base.
Choose a conference room, or off-site facility, where the team members can sit round a single table. This should be quiet and undisturbed. Arrange for flipcharts and pens.
The Peer Assist involves two teams
The visiting team should be comprised of people who have recent experience and practical knowledge to share. They should have been involved in similar projects in the past. Choose people with practical knowledge, rather than automatically calling in the head-office specialist. Ask your networks or communities of practice, make use of company "yellow pages" systems, or search your company Intranet to find people with experience on a topic. Avoid falling into the trap of "rounding up the usual suspects". Appoint a facilitator. The process may need careful facilitation, if it is new to your company culture.
It is good to kick off the formal part of the Peer Assist with a welcome from the Peer Assist sponsor, and an explanation of why the Peer Assist has been called, what its objectives and deliverables are, and why it is important to the business.
The second stage is a presentation from the host project team about the history and context behind their project, the current status, their plans and aspirations, and the risks and issues that they see. This section is "what do we know about the context and issues". Some of this material can also be provided as pre-reading.
During the next stage, the visitors can talk through recent relevant experience to the project team. This can be, at the very least, a reintroduction of the visitors, explaining what background and experience they have that relate to the issues the project team has just presented
The visitors next need to develop a good understanding of the details of the issues, the level of understanding, the available data, and the degrees of uncertainty. This is best done through dialogue, and possibly one-on-one dialogue between specialists. During this dialogue, the visiting team will be sharing knowledge with the project team, as well as gaining a better understanding of the issues in the project. The project team should therefore also be questioning the visitors about their experience and learning, and any insights they can bring to the project. This stage can take up to 50% or more of the Peer Assist.
A formal conclusion and feedback session is needed at the end of the Peer Assist, to summarise the outcome of the analysis, and present the results. Generally someone from the visiting team will do this. This is a good opportunity to have the sponsor, or manager, in the room, to hear the results of the assist. You can follow this session by a presentation from the project team (either a formal presentation, or round-the-room comments) on "what have we learned from the visitors" and "what are we going to do about it".
The peer assist is primarily for the benefit of the project team. Make sure the project team keep detailed notes, File the presentations and the deliverables, and record the feedback sessions
The Peer Assist should deliver its objectives, which will have been defined by the project team. However it will also have softer deliverables, and many organizations have found that introducing Peer Assists leads to an increase in openness, the establishment of cross-business linkages and communities, and an increased willingness to learn from others.