Asking for peer feedback is fraught with peril. It’s everyone’s second-most-dreaded part of the annual review process (only the self-review induces more anxiety). So it’s no wonder we don’t make a habit of seeking it the other 364 days of the year.

But seek it we should. Admittedly, it feels like a tax at first. Then, you realize it’s an investment.

There’s not been a single instance when getting a peer’s input on my work didn’t improve it. The trick is getting the right people to weigh in on the right piece of work at the right time. My favorite way to solve for that is with a technique that comes out of design thinking.

It’s called “sparring“, and it’s a structured way to evaluate work that is still in progress. At it’s best, a sparring session will also help you reach specific conclusions and make the decisions that move your project forward.

Sparring 101

While sparring was originally conceived as a way for artists and graphic designers to critique and help improve each other’s work, it applies to all sorts of projects – even projects that don’t have a strong visual component. I’ve seen developers spar on technical design. Or product managers sparring with designers and tech support on a new on-boarding experience. Even C-level executives have been known to spar on customer retention strategies or budget prioritization. 

How it works

Let’s start with the vital stats. For a sparring session, you’ll need:

  • 2-4 peers who will respectfully challenge you
  • 30 minutes prep time
  • 30 minutes for the sparring session
  • a visual representation of whatever you’re working on (a diagram on the whiteboard works fine)

Preparation

Before sending out any invites, make sure the work you want feedback on is ready for it. Is it far enough along that the feedback will be meaningful (but not so far along that you can’t change course)? Are you at a crossroads and need input on which direction to go from here (or a gut-check on the path you’ve already started down)?

Consider the scope of what you’ll show your peers. An entire enterprise network architecture plan might be a wee bit too much to cover in one session.

Last, take a few minutes to build the case for the approach you’ve taken. Compile any competitive research or customer interviews you’ve done. Gather up the data that has lead you to the decisions you’ve made so far.

Be ready to defend your work, but don’t get defensive. Critiques will be aimed at the work – not at you personally. So argue like you’re right, and listen like you’re wrong.

Give a walk-through

At the start of the sparring session, take 5 minutes to present the work in its current state. Provide just enough information to give people context, but don’t over-do it. They walked in the room with open minds, and you’ll get better feedback if you avoid keep it that way.

Bring on the feedback

Step back from the diagrams you’ve drawn or print-outs you’ve hung up, and let your peers go over your work in silence. Give them sticky notes so they can tack up comments. It’s fine to answer clarifying questions at this stage, but resist the temptation to dive into problem-solving mode.

Challenge and discuss

Start going through the comments your peers have left and discuss questions or new ideas that come out of them. You’ll probably find yourself answering some tough questions about what you’ve done and why. That’s ok.

In fact, that’s where the magic happens. In an ideal world, you chose peers who you trust and who don’t think exactly like you do. People who might see your idea and evolve it into something you’d never envisioned.

Your comfort zone is overrated

It’s scary opening your work up to people with diverse skills, backgrounds, and perspectives. Embrace that. Being outside your comfort zone will help you grow and improve your work.

Remember: sparring means practicing – not battling. Sure, it feels like you’ve taken a few intellectual punches, but they make you stronger. Just as boxers, fencers, and martial arts masters can’t train on their own, we office workers can’t improve without testing ourselves against others’ knowledge and experience.

. . .

For more tips and techniques, visit the Atlassian Team Playbook – our free, no-BS guide to working more effectively.

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Also published on Inc.com.

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