The first rule of Peer Club

When Manchester Digital announced their new Peer Club initiative, in partnership with Hyper Island and with support from some of the folks at Code Computerlove—I instantly thought this would be a great way to meet other people in my position in the industry, to exchange ideas on how we perform our roles as individuals, within our respective companies, and within the industry as a whole.

What happened on Saturday wasn’t quite what I had expected.

The digital community is a wholesome environment of sharing, collaboration and critical support. We’re bloody lucky. However much of how we compound our experience, craft and hone our skills and develop our working processes comes from our direct environment. The junior designer looks to their senior, the seniors to their directors. The bigger the agency, often the more direct influences can be observed and absorbed.

Having spent the last few years working within the confines of small team, rising to the top, I’ve now no-one above me to look to, to save me when I fail, to take the stick when I fuck up. Luckily, everyone I work with is awesome, and every day I’m inspired and driven to keep pushing by the talent and passion of my colleagues. But I always maintain that fear of losing touch, of falling behind or doing things ‘wrong’.

Which was why I became so excited about the idea of Peer Club.

Only it wasn’t what I’d had in mind.

It was better.

New Experiences

I’m not one for forced team building, for self-reflection and ‘opening up’. So when the day commenced with the group (around 40-strong, I’d say), rounding up in a circle to one-by-one introduce ourselves and explain ‘how we felt’—I was immediately dosed with a sense of dread.

I’d give it till the free lunch, then leave if it wasn’t for me.

Following the ice-breaking session, we were split in to our individual Clubs, typically between 3 and 6 people strong. In silence we were asked to each draw 3 things on a whiteboard that we felt had shaped us. A harder task than you might initially believe. Looking around the room threw up some obvious suggestions (friends, spouses, offspring, past relationships, travelling, education etc), but it was fascinating to see some of the more unique exceptions.

Photo by Rachel Tonner.

Of course, I wouldn’t share any of these, because after all, one of the key rules of Peer Club is Confidentiality.

We talked through these life influences within our clubs; the idea being to quickly get to know someone beyond the usual small talk (‘what do you do, where do you live etc’). Sure, it’s not exactly how I’d introduce myself to someone at the bar, but it was intriguing to discover how your perceptions of others can be affected by the sort of question you ask.

Later came ‘ridiculous exercise’ time—trying to build the highest tower of spaghetti with a marshmallow perched on top, within 18 minutes. Trying to leave my skepticism aside (why was I doing this on a Saturday afternoon, when I could be playing computer games or at the gym), I got stuck in, primarily because I wanted to beat our project director Laurie, who was in another club.

We failed. Well, failed in the sense that our Eiffel Tower of Spaghetti ended up as a kindling. But did we learn anything from the experience?

Reflection

Asking a few simple questions about the construction catastrophe opened a whole pandora's box of further questions and introspection. In honesty, it all got a bit philosophical:

  • What did I do well?
  • What could I have done differently?
  • Is there anything I held back from doing?
  • What did I learn about myself?
  • How did I feel?

The first few were straightforward. That last one, that ‘feeling’ one... that was a tricky one for me. But an ensuing discussion unearthed only more questions:

  • What would we do differently next time?
  • What if we’d had 10 more minutes?
  • Should we have planned more, or less?
  • Could we have gained more from copying the other teams?
  • Should we have concentrated more on sturdiness than height?

This process seems obvious, doesn’t it? But I was surprised at how much we got out of it.

Listening

It turns out I stuck around after lunch. I wanted to see where this day went.

There’s a quote by Jimi Hendrix that I’ve always tried to stick by:

“Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.”

Well that idea was adopted in some ways in our afternoon ‘Active Listening’ sessions. This process entails, between 2 or 3 of you, really listening to the speaker, for around 10-15 minutes. You begin by addressing your ‘stinky fish’—a challenge you are facing at work or in your professional life. From there just see where it goes.

As a listener—don’t interject, unless to maintain the flow. Don’t judge or give advice. Suspend judgement & subjectivity, remain neutral. And restate your impression at the end.

Photo by Joanna Halton.

With a coincidental tie to the Hendrix quote above, the idea of active listening reminded me of another quote, from the film White Men Can’t Jump:

"Look man, you can listen to Jimi but you can't hear him. There's a difference man. Just because you're listening to him doesn't mean you're hearing him."

It was awkward. At first.

Having a ‘conversation’ with someone where there’s little to no volley feels odd, but once the speaker settles down and begins to pull at the threads of what they’re saying, chasing different trains of thought and attempting to answer rhetorical questions—what begins to unravel can be quite fascinating.

Having the listener restate afterward their interpretation of your apparent rambling goes further to get under the surface of the difference between what you say, and what you’re saying.

Where does all this lead?

The various exercises throughout the day uncovered some realisations that I started to draw the links between. I hardly walked out of Hyper Island a new man on Saturday, but I’ve started to open the door to different ways I can address some of my problems and flaws both in my professional life, and hopefully as a person in general.

For me, despite at times bordering on the spiritual, I could see the logic behind everything we did. A lot of it was basic philosophy, much of it plain common sense. It’s not about asking the right questions, but just asking questions in the first place; it’s about interrogating what we take for granted—that which we dismiss because we’re scared of addressing it.

I’ll be looking to implement some of what we practised into how we do things at BLISS. As for our personal Peer Club, we intend to try meeting up once a month or so ongoing to see where the process goes, to see if we can continue to learn and improve ourselves.

If the organisers get round to sorting another day out—I’d highly recommend giving it a go. I’m as skeptical as they come, and I feel I got a lot out of it. Hyper Island’s a great space, the team that work there are really pleasant, and not a touch condescending.

And if turns out not to be your thing, at least you’ll get a delicious free lunch out of it!