Benefits of shadowing external peers

Connecting dots is easier when the dots show up at the same time.

In the span of 24 hours, three events happened:

- A colleague shared with me his first insights from shadowing other colleagues I had recommended him to get in touch with because of their seniority but also because of the differences of their relative context (topic, project maturity, groups involved, etc.).

- A former colleague, now in Tokyo, wrote to me in length about her new job. We had a first chat a couple of weeks ago, and it felt like her learning curve had accelerated with her change, so I had asked follow up questions.

- I met with a product manager who was organizing a training for aspiring product managers. Among her many ideas to expand this programme, she was thinking of helping product managers shadow peers from other companies.

It got me thinking: What would be the benefits of shadowing people who do the same job as yours, but in a different organization?

1. The best way to tell about the summer is to show the winter. When I was a kid, I would learn a lot about my family by visiting the homes of my friends. The contrast would reveal how unremarkable things I grew up around were actually unique to my family. Other worlds existed. Not better, not worse, just so different. And in those worlds, the rules were not the same. Maybe TV was allowed more often, but afternoon snacks were forbidden.

Contrast can only appear when two elements are there. With just one point of comparison, you can’t understand what to observe. With multiple examples, you can distinguish the universal rules and the variable ones. You can discover different contexts, and how they impact how people think, act and feel. You can bring the lessons home as a filter, revealing what was always there but never caught your attention.

2. People don’t always do what they say. If you ask an amazing mentor about her ways of working, it is possible than, for the sake of simplification, she might make things a little more beautiful than the reality. People communicate through stories, and good stories are not 100% made of truths. It’s makes the narrative more entertaining, but when you’re learning to grow, the nuance might matter more than the core lesson.

For each principle preached, there are some valid exceptions. Nailing them right could be as important as figuring out the big idea. By observing people in real situations, you get the change to see a slice of reality, unfiltered. It probably won’t be as pretty as the same day summarized by its protagonist, and that’s a good thing. Suddenly, you get to see that mighty heroes fail, doubt, and get bored. And by reduce the size of your legends, you diminish the gap towards them, and the impostor syndrome that goes with it.

3. People don’t always say what they do. Some people are eternal born-teachers. They love to turn their knowledge into a framework from others. Other people aren’t natural sharers. They do their thing, sometimes extremely well, but they wouldn’t spontaneously find the time or the way to pass it on to others. Shadowing is an elegant way to allow more types of people to be able to offer their help to others, regardless of their innate ability to teach: having the opportunity to observe great craftsmen at work can be the source of many insights, even without the ability to interact.

On top of that, some nuggets of accumulated wisdom don’t get shared through conversations, either because the mentor isn’t consciously aware of them, or because the mentee doesn’t ask the right questions that would lead to them. Shadowing can make mentorship more valuable for more types of mentors, and more types of mentees.

4. Practical first, theory second. With shadowing, you start by the practical aspect, and you discuss it later. You don’t lose the access to the rationale of what happened, but you avoid getting lost in theoretical considerations that keep you away from the real thing.

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