Advanced PeopleOps – 1:1 Retrospectives

Jul 2, 2018 | Perspectives in Engineering

Carmen’s heart sunk as she looked at her calendar. Back-to-back 1:1 meetings filled her day, overflowing into tomorrow.

“Ugh… maybe I could call in sick. Or, make up an excuse to work from home. My boss wouldn’t care. My team would be thrilled to skip them.”

“It’s not too late, you can still call in sick,” she thought as she stood in the Starbucks line, “but then what kind of boss would you be? It sucks, and everyone hates it, but you have to do it.”

“Sheesh, what are we gonna talk about? I guess I’ll just ask people what they are working on this week, and hopefully, I can get each one done in 5 minutes. Oh! Or maybe we could do them in small groups! That would take up SO much less time.”

“I’d better order an extra large coffee with quad shots… I’m going to need it.”

Apply what you already know

I’m going to share a head-smackingly simple lesson that served me well. Ready?
Make every fourth one-on-one meeting a retrospective to discuss improvements to your one-on-one’s.

This is similar to a sprint retrospective, and you can use the same format. The point of a sprint retrospective is for the team to improve. The point of this retro is to improve your one-on-ones, making them more valuable for both of you.

That’s it. Go do it.

But if you need a nudge…

Here are 5 steps to help you start:

  1. Let each team member know that the next one-on-one meeting will be used to discuss your one-on-one meetings.
  2. Ask them to write down what’s working for them, what’s not working, and ideas for change. You will do the same.
  3. During the meeting, discuss what you both wrote, just like in a normal retro.
  4. Brainstorm a list together of possible actions that will improve the meetings.
  5. Choose a few actions, again together, to try for the next three meetings, and then discuss them in your next one-on-one retro.

Simply start talking about your 1:1s with the other person and discuss how they could be better.

What if you’re NOT the boss?

What can you do to improve a one-on-one that is inflicted on you?

Here are some simple, but maybe not easy, ways to broach the subject with your boss:

  • Forward this article to your boss, with a note that you’d like to try 1:1 retros.
  • In your next 1:1 meeting, ask if you can take a few minutes to discuss how the meeting can be improved.
  • Brainstorm a retro-style glad-sad-mad list about the meeting and bring it to the next meeting.
  • Ask your boss what the real goal of the meeting is and whether they feel this format is meeting it.
  • Let your boss know that the current meeting format frustrates you and that you’d like to discuss changing it.
  • Tell your boss the way you feel about your 1:1 meetings, and then ask how they feel about them.

Talk about what’s really happening.

Stop pretending your 1:1s are great, or that they can’t be changed, or that you’re benefiting from them as much as you could be.

Best case: the meetings will improve, your boss will appreciate your initiative, and you’ll do better work.

Worst case: your boss says “No, things are fine as-is. How dare you suggest they could be improved. Just give me your status update.”

(If the worst case happens, you have bigger problems than crummy 1:1’s.)

What kinds of things can be changed about a 1:1 meeting?

It’s easy to fall into a rut with your 1:1 meetings, like an old married couple can fall into a pattern about how they spend Friday nights.

Here are ten things about your 1:1s that you could change, but might not have considered.
(There are surely many more, but this should get your creative juices flowing.)

  1. How often you meet. (It doesn’t have to be the same frequency with each person.)
  2. What time you meet. (It doesn’t have to always be at the same time.)
  3. Who runs the meeting. (How could you take turns running the meeting?)
  4. Where you meet. (Consider a walking meeting or a breakfast meeting.)
  5. What preparation both of you do for the meeting. (Try more, or less, prep.)
  6. The agenda for the meeting.
  7. The goal of the meeting,
  8. The length of the meeting,
  9. The communication medium (face-to-face, telephone, slack, Skype, etc.)
  10. What you could combine it with (a meal, a walk, a commute, etc.)

Do you wait too long to consider a change?

When I start to feel in a rut, I ask myself some questions.

In particular, I ask myself if my current practices still fit with the new situation or reality.

Often, I find that this one question allows me to be more agile, more creative, and less judging. It lets me see new possibilities that I’d been missing.

For example, if I was dreading my 1:1s, I might ask questions such as…

  • What is my secret goal for these meetings?
  • What is my spoken goal for them?
  • What is the other person’s goal for them?
  • What is the company’s goal for them?
  • What would happen if we stopped doing them?
  • What parts are valuable to me, and which feel like a waste.
  • What parts are valuable to them, and which feel like a waste.
  • What is the least we could do and still have a valuable 1:1 meeting?
  • What do we need to add? Subtract? Change?

The Principle of Grandma’s Ham

“The important thing is not to stop questioning” — Albert Einstein

Jane asked her mother, “Why do you cut the ends of the ham before baking it?”

Her mother answered, “Because that’s how your grandma taught me to do it. Ask Grandma.”

When Jane asked her Grandma, she replied, “My roasting pan was small, so I had to cut the ends off the ham to fit it in the pan.”

It’s hard to question the status quo.
Not just because you want to avoid looking dumb, or rocking the boat, or breaking tradition, but because you may not realize there’s a question to ask.

Old practices, new realities.
New possibilities are wonderful. New choices and options do exist about how we work together. New possibilities bring hope that the future doesn’t have to be like the past and that we can grow and improve.

What a great thought! 🙂
Now, you might be thinking of someone who’s feeling stuck that needs to hear this. Go ahead and forward this article it to them.

 


 

Marcus Blankenship

Marcus Blankenship

Marcus Blankenship specializes in helping technical managers and leaders create high-performing organizations. Get his lessons and resources to be a great engineering manager.

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