You may remember this advertising campaign from T-Mobile. In their commercials, a few garbled or dropped words during a cell phone conversation resulted in unexpected consequences. And usually, they weren’t good ones. While T-Mobile was referring to 5G Networks, their tagline applies to more than that. It’s critical you don’t trust your “Big Decisions” to just any personal network.

Over the last year we’ve dug into the value you can receive from developing peer networks in your personal and professional life. A network of peers is a fantastic source of ideas and feedback and an amazing tool for exploring challenges and opportunities. Your counterparts have lived in your shoes and share the same daily struggles you do. You have these groups all around you and whether you realize it or not you’re probably a member of quite a few. When it comes to finding a good painter to freshen up the walls of your house, you may turn to a neighborhood text group or “Nextdoor”; the app which creates a virtual network comprised of your physical neighbors.

At your company, you’re probably a part of multiple networks. There are networks of employees who share similar job titles, for example, you and your fellow “Branch Managers” make up a network or folks who have about the same numbers of years of experience with the company. You might be part of the “Newbies” or the “Seasoned Pro’s”. If you are a member of a club or civic organization such as “Rotary” you often find yourself in multiple networks within such an association. Networks can often be found around your hobbies such as fellow photographers, musicians, or golfers. As you tally up your “networks” don’t be surprised if you’re a member of at least a dozen groups.

Some of your groups required more effort to join than others. You may have had to work hard to become a part of a few while others you just fell into. While the barrier for entry may have been different each network requires some of the same inputs to get the most out of them. To have an effective network you must develop trust with your fellow members. For instance, to have an effective Neighborhood Network you must be a good neighbor. Ask good questions and actively listen to others within your group. Think of their needs and wants as you think of yours. Are they parallel. If they’re not it will be hard to build trust and make the most of your network. To use a healthy plant analogy you must constantly water, cultivate, and keep your network in bright sunlight for it to grow and strengthen.

While each of your networks can create value for you, not all can help with every challenge or opportunity you face. You may love the members of your fantasy football league, but would you ask them a question about your department’s strategy for handling a major crisis. Remember T-Mobile’s slogan: “Don’t trust Big Decisions to just any Network”. So, what should you look for in a network to handle big decisions? First, it shouldn’t be their first rodeo. You need a group with members who have been in your shoes and fought your battles.

It also needs to be a “Goldilocks’ Network.” Too small and you won’t get the diversity of experiences and thoughts needed to craft the best alternative. While I’m a huge supporter of friends helping friends through tough challenges, they certainly won’t have the wealth of experience you find in a peer network. Is bigger always better? No, when a network gets too large it becomes unwieldy and the members have a hard time staying disciplined enough to share specific stories. What’s the magic number? Based on our experience it’s between ten and fifteen.

Just as you need the right number of members you also need diversity. There is virtue in doing things “the company way”, but in my role as a consultant, I am often reminded of the “Interstate Analogy”. It’s the story of how a modern highway evolved from the winding route of a cow path as the herd migrated from one watering hole to another.

I’ve seen this play out in dozens of examples including how sales territories are assigned and the method in which new items are selected for stock. Both are critical processes for a distributor and often as I ask about how it evolved, I’m told it's “The way we’ve always done it”. While a network of fellow Branch Managers within your company can be valuable it’s not a diverse enough group to bring you broad enough experience when tackling your biggest problems. One formed within your own industry is broader, and better, than one created within just your company, but the best practice is a network created across multiple verticals.

To continue with our Branch Manager example, if you oversee an electrical distributor’s branch then a network of peers from plumbing wholesalers, HVAC distributors, roofing suppliers, as well as other electrical distributors is best. The key is the other members understand the subtleties of your business and face similar challenges and opportunities, but each has slightly different ways of handling them. That diversity gives you the best chance of creating world class solutions to your issues.

One additional best practice is around meeting rhythm. There is great value that comes from consistently sharing with this group. No one outside a Hollywood movie can convene a group of experts whenever an important decision must be made. Instead, there needs to be a consistent schedule for your network gatherings. We’ve found meeting for one hour 10 to 12 times a year is the proper frequency for maximum results.

To trust your professional network to find the best solutions make sure you build it broad and diverse with just the right number of members from across similar industries. Once you’ve put them together make sure you meet on a regular basis. With a well fed and cared for peer network it can grow to be one of the most valuable resources you’ll possess to improve your department and company. If you have questions on best practices related to peer networks, please reach out to me. I would love to help you.