posted 29 Jun 2001 in Volume 4 Issue 10
Learning before doing
BP’s peer assist process
In this first of a three-part series, Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell from BP draw on their experience – and their recently published book, Learning to Fly – to describe the first of three practical tools for learning, before, during and after any business activity. This month’s article explains the ‘peer assist’ process, the main tool used by BP to facilitate ‘learning before doing’.
Stated simply, a ‘peer assist’ is a meeting or workshop where people are invited from other teams to share their experience, insights and knowledge with a team that has requested some help. A peer assist is all about a team asking for help, and it is for the benefit of its members. Somewhere within BP, a peer assist is happening every week of the year. People contribute their time on the basis of reciprocity; they may be contributing their time and money to attend someone’s peer assist, but they may well request help from others in the organisation to work on their own issues. What goes around, comes around...
A peer assist:
- Targets a specific technical or commercial challenge;
- Gains assistance and insight from people outside the team;
- Identifies possible approaches and new lines of inquiry;
- Promotes sharing of learning with each other;
- Develops strong networks among staff.
It’s worth holding a peer assist when a business unit is facing a challenge, where the knowledge and experience of others will really help, and when the potential business benefits outweigh the cost of travel.
Here are some quotes from businesses that have used the process:
“I have just finished a peer assist where we saved the site something like $12-$20m and the company a figure we are still trying to calculate.”
“A retail lubricants peer assist in South Africa saved £15m in two days.”
“The power of the peer assist was not that it told us something we didn’t know, but rather that it got us into action to prevent us going down the same path as others.”
What is involved in a peer assist?
The concept of peer assist is quite simple, and it is more than just sharing good practice. Experience and knowledge is gained in a particular situation or context. Knowledge is thus context dependent and doesn’t always transfer easily to a different context. A peer assist consists of the following stages:
- I, having requested a peer assist, share what I know based on the context in which I learned it;
- You then share what you know based on your context;
- Together we learn what we both know and what we can learn from each other;
- We are then in a position to work together to determine what is possible, either by adapting the practice to work in the new context or by creating something new from what we both know;
- And from those possibilities we can take action. That is the essence of the peer assist process.
There is no single right way to hold a peer assist, but below is a twelve-step process that has worked well inside BP.
- Clarify the purpose
- Check whether someone has already solved the problem
- Identify a facilitator
- Consider the timing and schedule a date
- Select a diverse group of participants
- Get clear on the desired deliverables and how you might achieve them
- Plan time for socialising
- Spend some time setting the environment
- Divide the time available into four parts, start with sharing information and context
- Encourage the visitors to ask what they need to know
- Analyse what you have heard
- Present the feedback, consider what each has learned, and who else might benefit. Agree actions and report progress.
Twelve steps to holding a peer assist
Step 1 – Clarify the purpose
Peer assists work well when the purpose is clear and you communicate that purpose to participants.
Define the specific problem you are trying to get help with, consider whether a peer assist is the most appropriate process, then write a ‘terms of reference’.
Facilitator’s notes: if you are the facilitator, get clear on the purpose of the peer assist and be sure that the person holding it genuinely wants to learn something. Ideally, they are targeting the peer assist to address one of the key business risks. If the stated purpose is to gain endorsement or to get others to use ‘my’ method, then advise them that they require some other sort of meeting.
Step 2 – Check whether someone has already solved the problem
Consider whether someone else has already solved the problem. Have a look at the company knowledge base to find out what others have already learned. Share your peer assist plans with others. They may have similar needs.
For example, several refineries held peer assists to improve cost savings. This involved some people repeating the exercise at many refineries in different parts of the world. A more efficient way might have been to hold a peer assist at a single refinery and extract the common lessons for all refineries to adopt.
Step 3 – Identify a facilitator
Identify a facilitator who is external to the team. The role of the facilitator is to ensure that by managing the process the meeting participants reach the desired outcome. The facilitator may or may not record the event; make sure you agree roles beforehand. Plan the details of the peer assist in conjunction with the facilitator. Clarify the purpose and the desired outcome, and then plan the time to achieve that.
Step 4 – Consider the timing and schedule a date
Schedule a date for the peer assist. Plan the peer assist early to make use of the help to deliver your business outcome. People frequently hold them too close to the decision date to make a real impact. Ask yourself: ‘If I get a result we do not expect, will I have time to do anything about it?’ Give yourself time to apply the knowledge and be prepared for the unexpected. After all, you didn’t invite people just to endorse your ideas. Did you?
Schedule your peer assist early enough to apply what you learn. Consider the timing: who is available on your selected dates? When are the holidays?
How long does a peer assist last? This depends on the complexity of the problem and the familiarity of the team with the context. Our experience has been that the majority of peer assists are one-and-a-half to two days long, though something useful can be exchanged in half a day.
Step 5 – Select a diverse group of participants
Once the purpose is clear, develop a list of potential participants who have the diversity of skills, competencies and experience needed for the peer assist. Six to eight people is ideal. Sometimes we observe that the same people turn up again and again. Avoid the ‘usual suspects’ and bring some fresh ideas into the discussion.
Facilitator’s notes: watch for the balance between the visitors and the home team. Avoid the urge to invite the whole project team into the meeting. It’s easy to overwhelm the visitors and stifle new thinking.
Step 6 – Get clear on the desired deliverables and how you might achieve them
Get clear on the desired deliverables of the peer assist, and then plan the time to achieve that. Prepare carefully; optimise the time spent together, and make use of the knowledge gained. The deliverables should comprise options and insights rather than the answer. It is up to the person who asked for the assistance to decide upon the actions. Give them the benefit of your experience, and allow them to decide whether to follow your advice.
Provide the participants with any briefing materials early enough for them to review them prior to the actual peer assist. Be clear in articulating both the objective of the peer assist and the business problem or challenge for which you are asking the group to provide input. Be prepared for these to be ‘re-framed’ in the course of the challenge.
What do we mean by re-frame the challenge? The problem you have identified might well be the symptom rather than the root cause. Here is an example of this: I attended a peer assist where the business manager was looking for some insights and options to make his gas project a more attractive investment. In setting the context, the focus was on the months of work that his engineering team had undertaken to take out unnecessary costs. This included investigating imaginative ways to use fewer materials, to reduce the construction cost, and to defer costs until some gas, and hence money, was flowing.
What might they have forgotten? Would the combined brainpower of their peers come up with a solution based on their own experiences of large projects?
After checking they understood the issues, the peers started talking about their own experiences. Viewing the problem for the first time, they rapidly came up with a number of alternatives. One option provided the breakthrough.
The focus of the business team had been on reducing costs. They wanted a better return on investment before they committed to spend the large amounts of money required. What if they focused instead on getting a better return? Returns on investment were constrained by the terms of the contract with the government in which they were working, as the business manager had been told by the government not to discuss re-negotiation.
The experience of peers was that it was better to talk to the government early, discuss the problem and look for ways that both the company and the government could meet their objectives. After all, the country needed the money from royalties every bit as much as BP needed an acceptable return on investment.
The next day the business manager called his contact in the government to arrange a meeting. Thereafter the balance of activity shifted from engineering to contract negotiations.
Fresh eyes often see the world through different lenses and help you focus on the root cause.
Step 7 – Plan time for socialising
Allow time in the agenda for members of the team to get to know one another. The team needs to socialise; this may be a dinner the night before or half an hour over coffee at the start of the day – something to start building a rapport. Remember, this is a temporary but newly formed team. For the group to work openly together, to make and receive challenges, to have your pet project put under the microscope, it is important that you get to know each other. If you cannot manage this, plan dinner for the evening between the two days. It is amazing how much knowledge is transferred over a glass of wine and a good meal. One team started by sharing a communal Japanese bath together. But this is not absolutely essential to ensure a successful peer assist!
Step 8 – Spend some time setting the environment
So that’s all the preparation – what about the meeting itself?
Spend some time setting the environment and stating expected behaviours. Brief the host team to listen and watch carefully for opportunities. A defensive reaction will deter the visitors from offering their insights.
Design the day ensuring plenty of opportunity to reflect. I achieve this by asking a few simple questions.
The role of the peer assist participants is to offer help, know-how and experience to resolve the challenge without adding to the workload. However, some contention will raise the level of discussion. This will not occur if the group is being too polite.
Facilitator notes: ensure that the contention is focused on the activity rather than the person, and encourage people to consider alternative ways of completing the action.
Step 9 – Divide the time into four parts; start with sharing information and context
Most of the peer assists we have been involved with last one-and-a-half to two days. Divide the meeting time into four roughly equal parts. Clearly articulate the purpose of bringing the peer assist team together and make a clear request of the team. During the first quarter, get the resident team to present the context, the history and the plans for the future. Resist the temptation of having too many from the home team, and telling too much. You want only to say enough to get the peer assist team started in the right direction. They can ask questions if they want to know more.
The visitors have travelled and have given up some of their precious time to help. Ensure that they are listened to. There was one peer assist in London to which an engineer from Trinidad had been invited. He had travelled overnight for ten hours to help, but despite efforts to involve him, he wasn’t given the space to say what he thought of the plans.
Facilitator’s notes: keep context presentations short and sharp. There is a noticeable tendency for any information presented becoming the focus of discussion. Avoid this by finding out what the visitors want to know.
Step 10 – Encourage the visitors to ask what they need to know
In the second part the visitors take up the baton. They consider what they have heard and discuss what they have learned that has surprised them, and what they haven’t heard that they expected to. The home team should take a back seat at this stage and maybe even exit the room. The peer assist team then decides its course of action. What else do they need to know and whom do they know who knows? It may be that you want to talk to others to get their viewpoints at this stage, to talk to operational people or experts, customers or government officials. Set up some interviews, or make telephone or videoconference calls. Get views from contractors, external bodies or local staff if relevant. Request data and reports. What do you need to know to address the problem at hand? Remember, it’s not the job of the peer assist team to solve it, but rather to offer some options and insights based on their unique experiences.
Facilitator’s notes: feedback is an essential part of the learning process. Allow time at the end of each day to feedback. Use an after action review if appropriate to help set the direction for the following day.
Step 11 – Analyse what you have heard
The third part of the meeting is for analysing and reflecting on what you have learned. By all means involve a couple of people from the home team but make sure they don’t close off options too quickly or drive towards their preferred outcome. They should be there to listen and learn. At this stage you are examining options.
Towards the end of this phase create a presentation to give to the wider home team. What have you learned, what options do you see, and what has worked elsewhere? Tell the story of how it has worked elsewhere rather than beginning ‘you ought to…’.
Step 12 – Present the feedback, consider what each has learned, and who else might benefit. Agree actions and report progress
The last step for the visitors is to present their feedback to the team and to answer questions. Avoid getting into debate at this stage. As in all feedback, start with what has been done well and then what options there are to do things differently. Focus on the activity rather than the people. Finish with a general positive statement. On the receiving end, don’t expect a silver bullet, a single solution to all of your challenges, a sudden flash of inspiration that tells you your problems are solved. Frequently, the home team feel nothing new has come up. Remember, the visitors are reflecting on what they have been told, coupled with what they know in their context. Often they confirm what you are doing is right but may set your priorities somewhat differently. The peer assist may increase your confidence to do something that necessitates making a difficult decision.
The person who set up the peer assist should acknowledge the help and the time people have given up. They should also commit to when they will get back with an action list of what the team are going to do differently. They may decide to invite the peer assist team back for future help. The benefit of this would be that they would not need to learn the context again and the peers can gain satisfaction from remaining connected with the project.
Next, have the visitors reflect for five minutes, then say what they have learned that they will take away and apply. Learning is never one-way, although the peer assist may start out along those lines. Offer what you learn to others and provide a contact name for follow-up discussions.
At the end, have each participant consider what they have learned and will apply from the peer assist.
Consider who else might benefit from the lessons learned and the best way of doing that. Share the lessons learned with these individuals. Provide contact names for follow up discussions and progress reports. Re-using knowledge is a smart way to avoid duplicate effort. Finally, carry out an after action review. Did the peer assist go according to plan? What was different and why was there a difference? And what can you learn from that?
Who are the right people to invite to a peer assist?
Sir John Browne, chief executive of BP, observed in a recent interview for HBR that:
“The politics accompanying hierarchies hamper the free exchange of knowledge. People are much more open with their peers. They are much more willing to share and to listen.”
Look across the hierarchy, not up it. Make sure they are peers – peers can be more open and challenge without being threatening. Ask the discipline head to suggest some names so he or she is assured that the right challenge will be offered, but do not invite the discipline head to attend.
Assemble a group of participants that has diverse skills and experience. Include people who will both challenge your mental models and offer options and new lines of inquiry. Consider including people from other disciplines, businesses, and companies. When partners and external folks are involved, this adds to the value of the assist. The more experience from different contexts you can access, the greater the number of angles from which to illuminate your problem.
If you are working with a smaller organisation, consider getting help externally. We have found that people love to help, and that they always learn something for themselves as a consequence. Generally, people are flattered to be asked.
Of course, this process can also be applied beyond the context of work. You might consider trying the peer assist process to tackle a bullying problem in a local school, or to develop ideas for fund-raising activities for your favourite charity. Consider the opportunities or problems you have today that would benefit from the assistance of your peers.
In the next edition of Knowledge Management, Geoff and Chris continue the series, and describe the tool BP applies for ‘learning while doing’ – the US Army’s after action review process.