The magic of well run 1:1s

Agile and software delivery

My personal experience as an IT professional has always been that 1:1s often got deprioritized, continuously rescheduled for weeks or sometimes months, and when they did happen they were mostly used as opportunities to provide unidirectional top down updates.

As I have discovered relatively late in my career, 1:1s are instead by far the most important meetings as a manager.

It is really saddening to see how in the software industry somehow this importance is the least recognized.

Some of my past managers even believed that 1:1s could be completely replaced by informal chats throughout the week, passing by near a desk, just syncing up on what’s happening and discussing primarily tech specific issues in an ad-hoc and unanticipated way.

When it comes to the software industry it seems like being innovative in the name of technology is a must. Yet if there is one area where every business professional with direct reports should be focused on without exceptions is exactly this very traditional one.

Good 1:1s

The fundamental misunderstanding around 1:1’s is that they are not yet another meeting to catch up on things. They should be instead specifically set up as a safe moment where

  1. your direct reports have a chance to be heard,
  2. problems are surfaced and discussed,
  3. feedback is provided and your support becomes tangible.

The foundations of this approach are easy to identify.

If it’s true that people quit bosses and not jobs, research has consistently shown the measurable impact of listening to employees’ grievances as a way to increase engagement and lengthen work tenures - even when the manager is not in a position to provide definitive solutions - as it’s often the case.

And because of the well known principle of reciprocity, people will listen to you if you listen to them first. Nothing like a well run 1:1 has the same impact in this area and is a stepping stone to build rapport and collaboration.

Software industry and 1:1s

Unfortunately the software industry is plagued by a few specific problems when it comes to people management and 1:1s in particular.

First of all, everything is very tech focused. There is somehow a belief that technology is the hard bit of the equation and people management is always a second thought. Soft skills are unfortunately taken for granted or considered unimportant and 1:1s tend to fall into this bucket.

Also tenures are getting very short, even among top tier companies that claim amazing compensation, work life balance and inviting perks. Developers behave like grown up dreamers that get easily distracted by the sirens promising a better salary and more purposeful work.

An interesting element to consider is that software companies rarely accrue real intellectual property in the form of revolutionary algorithms or patentable discoveries and their success is very much hinged on their operational capability to efficiently deliver value to its users and that capability is centered primarily around people, not technology.

In other words getting people to work and deliver together the hard bit and therefore establishing fruitful and long working relationships can and will impact the bottom line of a business more than any underlying technical choice.

The industry as a whole has been very slow in understanding the importance of soft skills and specifically 1:1s - which is where these skills can have the greatest impact.

But what are 1:1s?

I like to describe 1:1s as structured and anticipated conversations between a manager and an employee. Like all well run meetings:

  1. they are structured as to guarantee a consistent result and avoid getting skewed to interesting but useless side topics and
  2. anticipated to give time to the person reporting to you to come up with specific elements to discuss.

The primary goal of you as a development manager, tech lead, CTO is to show that you care about helping your team overcome hurdles.

Therefore my favourite and proven approach works as follows:

  1. Start with a recap of the action items from our previous meeting
  2. Ask questions around the current issues, what is working well and what isn’t and how you - as the manager - can provide help
  3. Establish a dialog by digging deeper and asking questions and provide suggestions and feedback
  4. Discuss and agree on action items moving forward.

Start with problems

Everybody likes good news, no one likes to hear about problems.

This is one of the biggest misconceptions with management:

Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.

Unfortunately this approach is just wrong.

Andrew Grove, the legendary founder of Intel, describes in his classic book High Output Management how every manager’s goal is to try and identify problems at the earliest - exactly like in a production process you would want to spot defects at the lowest-value stage possible.

In fact great managers have realised that the cost of ignoring issues grows exponentially with time. As the famous VC founder Ben Horowitz reminds us in his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things:

If you investigate companies that have failed, you will find that many employees knew about the fatal issues long before those issues killed the company.

The question is: why weren’t these issues raised? Well the issues might have in fact been raised - maybe even multiple times - but management simply ignored them.

Sometimes the problems raised contradict specific narratives that are dear to the CEO (things are always improving / we are learning from our mistakes / this project will be different / the technology is improving) or maybe threaten the current strategic direction of the company.

Some other times middle managers are simply unhappy about acknowledging problems with fear that they can negatively spread and affect team morale and enthusiasm.

In my experience, no matter what the specific reason is, most managers don’t like to hear problems because they simply don’t have an immediate solution. So they prefer to ignore the issues or - even worse - get upset when they are repeatedly brought up.

Most likely if there were no problems then there would be no need for managerial positions.

So what can you do when you - as a manager - are made aware of problems you don’t have a solution to? A small observation can help: the person close to the problem is usually closer to the best solution, she may have some ideas in mind and all she needs is help in choosing the best one.

So the easiest step is to ask for a run down of all options with PROs and CONs analysis and use the time in the 1:1 meeting to provide more context from the wider business that can help identify the most logical way forward.

Some other times you won’t have enough knowledge of the specific topic to be able to help directly and that’s when another simple but effective approach comes in handy. You can for example question the thought process behind a solution - or what is technically called its epistemology.

  1. It is actually easy to evaluate the quality of the thinking process without any deep knowledge of the specific topic at hand and
  2. a good thinking process is highly correlated with good solutions and vice versa.

Sad differently: if you can’t easily poke holes in the thinking that leads to a solution, and all the assumptions behind it are relatively solid you can get confidence in the output.

As a manager you don’t have all the answers but if you start your 1:1s asking about problems and you know how to react to it intelligently you can turn bad news into opportunities.

Breaking down the barriers

Discussing problems is a great first step but how can we make sure people feel free to bring them up with us in the first instance?

Research has consistently shown that leaders can be intimidating even without realising it. My door is always open! - I am sure everyone is familiar with this expression - yet that’s rarely the case: leaders often have an inflated idea of how easy it is for others to speak honestly to them.

Employees - and developers specifically - may not feel comfortable enough talking about problems if their manager doesn’t show the right attitude and state of mind.

So if asking questions is important, listening to the answers with curiosity and a non judgemental attitude is crucial. We want to establish an open dialog where the defenses literally go down and our ideas are well received.

Steer the conversation

This is not always easy and fulfilling: sometimes developers like to complain at length about irrelevant details or minor squabbles around coding styles, who said what, debating perfectly valid architectural choices etc and it’s hard to listen without interrupting.

Your job is to gently steer the conversation away from the pointless complaining towards more fruitful outcomes.

Don’t forget that you - as a manager - have naturally access to more information than your employee so your goal is to make the other person being heard but also to help reframe the issues raised in the context of the bigger company picture.

Reframing is the key and when this is done correctly, big problems all of the sudden appear smaller and everybody can walk away from the conversation with a feeling of satisfaction.

Example of good questions to ask usually start with how or what:

  1. How do you think this issue is impacting the company and your capability to do your job?
  2. What can be done to mitigate this problem?
  3. How can I help you in bringing this up with the team?

Technically speaking these are called calibrated questions, they are calibrated to shift the perspective, stimulate reflection, provide a sense of control to the person answering and effectively transform the dynamic from: “I have a problem I want to vent about” to “how can we solve this together?”

So steer the conversation towards your desired outcomes using calibrated, open ended questions - avoiding pointless venting.

Provide feedback

Another key element of 1:1 meetings is feedback.

A lot can be said about this topic but it suffices to say that feedback works best when it’s:

  1. factual - based on non debatable evidence like emails, pull requests, code lines etc
  2. actionable - and practical in nature
  3. incremental - so as to not overwhelm the recipient as change takes time for everyone
  4. above all: focused on strengthening the positive qualities - instead of the shortcomings

Unfortunately most managers once again don’t like to provide regular feedback as they fear it generating conflict.

On the contrary there is a growing body of scientific evidence on this topic that shows how directness is in fact key to long term peaceful relationships. Problems don’t get solved if they are not brought up.

So make providing feedback part of our regular 1:1s without exceptions or as Ray Dalio puts it bluntly:

don’t pick your battles, fight them all

The magic

It is amazing what people tell you if you just listen.

Making sure that you have scheduled and structured 1:1s, focused on 1) listening instead of providing updates, and on establishing an open dialog about 2) problems and solutions, and 3) providing regular feedback will do wonders in creating a culture of psychological safety and growth, increase employee satisfaction and the overall performance of your team.

1:1s are where the magic happens - the magic that creates the foundation for highly effective and engaged teams.


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