On the Structure of One on Ones


This is a continuation of my previous post, in which I covered the goals and purposes of One on One Meetings

Table of Contents

Over the course of those last two years, I found a structure for having 1on1 meetings that helps me a lot to get the most of these meetings, and which also helped to make 1on1s a deeply ingrained part of vaamo’s tech team culture.

Structure

All of the below elements, can be used on their own and you don’t necessarily have to do all of them in every meeting. But of course to some extent, used together they are stronger than each of them is on their own.

If you’re starting out doing 1on1s with your team, I suggest you start out with one element only and over time add more elements.
They’re ordered in a way that each element builds upon the previous ones and expands them in a sensible way.

Prepare - Choose a Theme

While some posit that 1on1s are the employee’s meeting and I’d generally agree with that statement, it’s your job as manager to have your team member’s back and make sure the 1on1 is useful in any case.

Photo under "CC BY 2.0 License" by Photo Monkey

By that I mean, you should at every point in the 1on1 be able to take the lead and steer the meeting into a direction that’s useful to you and your team member. Proper preparation can enable you do to that.

What worked very well for me, is to set a theme beforehand. Think of a theme that gives you both valuable insights.
Have you talked about how the team could improve lately? Do you know who your team member thinks is doing a great job on the team? Why? Do you know what they think of your management style? Do you know where they’d like to be supported more? Do they have a grasp on where they’re going with their career?

Having a regular direct line to your team via 1on1s is a powerful tool to get an intimate view into the opinions of your whole team. By setting a theme and asking everyone the same or a similar set of questions in their 1on1s, you can get a good picture of how your team feels about certain things.
In my recent experience, it was immensely helpful to know what made everyone on the team feel productive, by asking everyone in their respective 1on1 the same set of question, which was “Do you feel productive in your day to day work? What makes you feel productive?”. The answers enabled profound changes and increased happiness across the team, and event after quite some time now still prove very helpful in designing processes.

Jason Evanish has an exhaustive list of questions for 1on1s, so does Lara Hogan who has a great list of Questions for your first 1on1. Popforms even provides a service to deliver a set of matching inspirational questions to to your and your team member’s mailbox at a specified interval.

Listen

This is somewhat an antithesis to the previous structuring element, but nevertheless very if not more important.

Photo under "CC BY 2.0 License" by Matthew G

You, as a manager, should spend most of the time listening to what your team member has to say. And by listening I mean to really try to understand what the other person is saying, by putting your own definitions and opinions into the background.

Look out for moments where you’re waiting to release an already prepared answer to whatever your counterpart is saying at the moment, while they’re still speaking. In those moments you think you know what the other person is saying. But really all you’re doing is reacting to your pre-defined notion you have about the other person.

Status Update

An important purpose of 1on1s is to get to know your team members’ views and feelings about various things. And among “those various things” are also, let’s be honest, current projects and tasks.

Photo under "CC BY 2.0 License" by Pedro Ribeiro Simões

Everybody says “don’t use 1on1s for status updates”. But sometimes that status is the thing that’s on everyone’s mind. So it’s simply not practical to not exchange that update.

The most sensible thing you can do, is to make that update useful. Which in my experience is done by limiting the time you spent with this update and by getting the unique perspective of your counterpart on the subject. Make sure you don’t spend time on defining and discussing concrete actions about the current work, that should be postponed to be done later, even if directly after the 1on1.

So, don’t be too dogmatic on your definition of 1on1s but rather make sure it’s useful for everybody.

Conclude with Something Actionable

The temptation is high to end the meeting, when you both feel there’s nothing left to say. You possibly exchanged your views, at least you listened and deepened your understanding of some area. You’re feeling all fuzzy, because everything’s great. You’re awesome, your team member is awesome. And that’s it.

No! Don’t do that.

Photo under "CC BY 2.0 License" by Steve Slater

Take those extra 5 minutes if you will and decide together what the next action for each or both of you should be. How can each of you make the next minor step to improve one of the possibly many topics that was touched upon in that specific 1on1?

Ending the 1on1 with some concrete actions, something that you can both be held accountable to, is super important. Because it will bring constant progress into your relationship with your team member. It will be one of the most natural things for both of you, that over time you keep on making things better for both of you.

But the rhythm of constant smaller actions, is also a great tool for building trust. By constantly “showing up”, delivering on the agreed actionables, trust will become a natural part of your relationship with your team member.

Dream Big

Having 1on1s and with this a regular point of contact, you and your team member have a venue for working towards a larger, possibly far away personal and/or career goal.

Photo under "CC BY 2.0 License" by Kai Lehmann

In most circumstances the product and what the company wants to do and achieve is more or less well taken care of and worked towards. But when a single team members personal development and career goals (or at least a direction in which someone wants to go), it’s hard to place it somewhere it receives continuous progress. And the rhythm allows you to chip away at this far-away looming mountain of work. One step at a time.

Hot Topic: How long is a 1on1?

One of the minor but constantly asked-first questions about 1on1s is about the length of the meeting. “How much time should we spend on the 1on1?”

Photo under "CC BY 2.0 License" by valentin.d

Obviously the only right answer is a “depends”.

I’ve read a lot of articles over time, where people mention 30min per 1on1 with a weekly or bi-weekly schedule.

Personally I prefer longer but slightly less-frequent 1on1s, and currently my 1on1s are 1h long and we do them bi-weekly. I prefer this schedule, as I feel that some topics, especially the hard ones, need time. The really interesting stuff always happens sometime into the meeting, when people become more relaxed. But that may very well be related to my personality, as I’m more the kind of person who likes to take it’s time with hard topics.

TL;DR

If you’re not doing 1on1s yet with your team, I strongly encourage you to start doing so. And if you’re not sure yet, take a look at the why behind 1on1s.

When starting out, begin with only a few practices outlined above and extend over time. Time is on your side when doing 1on1s. If you stick with them, you’ll have lots of iterations soon and can expand and play with the format sooner than you think.

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