xgerman's technology blog

One on One


I got some flag on twitter for throwing shade on some write-up about 1:1s: https://twitter.com/xgerman/status/1092212927531106304 Don't get me wrong the article is quitengood but I have some minor disagreements.

What's the purpose of 1:1s

One-on-one are any meetings where just two people meet to talk to each other. So I am not talking exclusively about meetings with your boss (see https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/master-the-one-on-one-meeting) but also mentoring (see https://www.forbes.com/sites/theyec/2014/02/28/10-killer-questions-to-make-the-most-of-your-mentor-meeting/#5e82071f1481) and any other meeting between two people. I broadly characterize them into mentoring/coaching meetings, career development, status meetings (I will lump 1:1s where new work is doled out under this as well).

In most cases 1:1s are what you want 1:1s to be. Senior people are often busy and don't really know your needs (what you like to be mentored in), what's the career path you are seeking, etc. One advise I got is that if I meet with more senior people I should think about asks I might have. Asks migth be as simple as “he, who should I talk to to learn more about X?". Keep that in mind in particular for skip-level and mentoring meetings.

I also have a weekly 1:1 with a peer where we keep tabs on a technology we bith use in different parts of the company and I would characterize that as a status meeting. We know each other a long time and this is my favorite meeting of the week. There is some work on “positive psychology” (read Shawn Archer's excellent “Big Potential” for more) that we should surround ourselves with “positive” people which then leads to us being more positive and happy. So you can use 1:1s to start of your day positive ;-)

How is a (software) project organized

If we think about Scrum there are usually daily standups where everyone gives a status update, some planning meeting for the team to decide on what tasks to work on during the next two weeks (sprint), a meetign to figure out what went well/what didn't and what thing(s) to do going forward to improve, etc. Mostly, the goal is for a team to be self organizing: Someone puts in well written stories and some quality software gets delivered every two weeks.

As we can see the scrum process makes 1:1 status meetings with our boss redundant. He could just look in the tool, attend the standup, or read the notes from the standup (if notes are taken).

Similarly, our boss might not be the best person to mentor us in technology. A senior engineer might be as good or even have more knowledge in a particular technology and often more time. That's why I set up a mentroing program between each junior engineer and a senior engineer. This allowed the program to scale to even more than one meeting a week and also allowed for ad-hoc meeting if the junior engineer was stuck.

Antipattern: Use 1:1 for status and micro managing

From the article “For example, on the employee side, you might not be sure whether to invest your time in Task A or Task B and the progress of your commits slows down as a result. Which one is higher priority?” and I rememeber reading (my mind might be playing tricks with me) the manager giving guidance based on some private information about the task he had.

I see two problems with that: If it's not clear which task is more important, we have done a poor job with prioritizing the tasks in a sprint or in the backlog. But even assuming this is an edge case where priorities given our best efforts are not clear, should the guidance be given in a one-on-one or should it be shared with the whole team? 1:1s are an expensive way to cascade information to the team. (One of my pet peeves is a manager calling each team member to tell them some other team member has resigned - can't that be done in a group?)

I have had managers who used 1:1s to redefine my task or give me more detail. I see this as masking problems in our process: Maybe we should write better stories? Even if for some reason it can't be described in a story should this guidance not be given in a break out meeting right after standup insteasd of waiting for for the next 1:1? What does this to morale? Similarly, if managers redirect engineers during 1:1s that makes the planning meeting a farce and leads to the team not be empowered - or even causes people to wait until the next 1:1 to start a task.

I have been in situations where we had meetings and needed senior management to make decisions on our proposal - you can't spring that on them at the meeting so need to “socialize” the proposal in 1:1s and seek allicances, etc. Of course nobody is stopping you to run your engineering team that way and hash out proposals in 1:1s and then orchestrate them being adopted by the team – but it's in my opinion much better and more efficient to be transparent and hash things out as a team - instead of running the shop as a Game of Thrones. That said if people try to pull you on their side in 1:1s for upcoming changes be wary and maybe say you need to bring that up with the team before you can make a call.

Early in my career I have been told “Management is only needed when things go wrong.” On the flipside if things follow the happy path a manager should mostly be idle. So the goal of management is to empower teams to mostly work independently of any day-to-day guidance. 1:1s which purpose is to micro manage engineers will just become a bottle neck. So as a manager if you see spending a lot of 1:1 time on work items, or explaining technical stuff, or sharing the same information more than once – step back, do more with the (whole) team, and change the agenda of your 1:1s.

Exceptions - or when to need a reorg or you don't work in tech

Forget everything I said if you don't manage software/scrum/agile teams. I have heard of people trying to run their house remodel with daily standups and such but I am not sure how that worked out in the end.

So sometimes you either have some engineer go off to explore something tangential (like fixing an obscure customer bug in some previous, now unsupported version). It's not very interesting to the team to hear about those adventures since they are already on a new platform/framework/etc. and making that run as part of the sprint is awkward. So you might take him out of the scrum temporarly and try to manage through 1:1s as a scrum of 1. If this becomes permanent the employee might be better off in some unit where the sole focus is doing obscure stuff for customers (e.g. professional services).

You might also be grooming one team member as your successor and give him more attention (coaching) and special tasks (like the weekly TPS report for upper management) which need their review and guiding outside the current sprint. The goal of this is to lead to a reorg with you being director and him/her manager - so again temporary.

Lastly, you might work in a place which has all Java engineers under you in the Java practice but for their day-to-day they are under some scrum master together with people from the database team, etc. – so your only interaction is at staff meetings and some 1:1s. So this means your main job is to pick interesting projects for people, make them feel good, and show them a good time.

On good management

The article touches on strategic vs. tactical: Daily standups, even planning, and sometimes sprint reviews appear too tactical. What can be done to not loose the strategic lense? In most places I have worked there are about monthly reviews usually by VPs of each team or something rolled up for a number of teams. I have made it a habit of inviting the whole team if it's the VP reviewing my team's work and if it's the rolled up variant share the part in the presentation about my team with the team. I think it is important for the team to see how their work is communicated, what's the impact, and what strategic direction more senior management provide – and it shows your trust in the team.

The artcile suggests “1:1s should reduce uncertainty by making us feel more connected to the rest of the team”. I agree 1:1s are an important part for people feeling connected or at least valued but it's not everyhting. As a manager it's important to invest in team building - is there an opportunity to get to know each other as people outside the office. Do you add to the staff neeting some cheesy questions like, “what's your favorite vacation spot and why?". Do you celebrate successes? How do you make things fun? Once, I picked quirky names for each sprint. Another time I had each team member come up with a fun name for the sprint. Those are small things but they make a difference.