My framework for one-on-ones
Getting the best out of my team is one of my responsibilities. For that I need personal time with each teammate. But taking the most out of these sessions can be very hard. So I started to build a framework to help me.
My one-on-one goals and format
I focus my 1on1s on leveling up my mentees, and also myself in the process. The goal is to make us better and this will be a joint effort. Usually I don’t know what to do or how to do it. I’ll have a period of discovery where I try to get to know and understand each member of my team.
I typically do my 1on1s every month, in a session of 30 to 60 minutes. I’ve seen elsewhere that this might be a very long period. I’m usually very close to my teammates and work day to day with them. I may also have sprint commitments and deliverables and by being in the trenches everyday I get to detect issues and talk about them right away.
This allows me to save the 1on1s just for self improvement. It doesn’t mean that I don’t attend to issues if needed. But fortunately I’ve been able to handle issues in real time, and then I can use the 1on1s for retrospection, and most important, for thinking about the future.
The agenda for each meeting is very similar to the following:
- Small talk about the previous month
- Gathering and measuring feedback
- Covering current month’s theme
Before each meeting I’ll create a confluence page with the agenda and share it with my mentee. This might also have some external feedback I’ve gathered elsewhere. This will be a private document for me and my mentee and we’ll have a registered history of all our sessions.
Small talk about the previous month
I start asking about how things are going and how was the last month. I usually already have an idea of it, so I try to focus on things that I may have missed or things that my mentee may not have shared.
This can be very quick or can actually take the full session if we have complex issues going on.
It also depends on personalities. There are people that may be more keen to complain, others that are very quiet and don’t like to share that much. I try to give them space and adapt to their way of being. It’s important that they feel comfortable and safe.
Gathering and measuring feedback
While receiving feedback, I try to categorise and measure several indexes. I ask for a 1 to 5 scale on several topics and register them every month. This allows me to see trends and anticipate problems. The image I have on the start of this post is an example of gathering data for 6 months.
I have detailed articles about each index:
Not only this allows me to measure some key points, it also allows me to talk about specific issues. This is very important with more quiet people that don’t talk that much. Going through this topics and trying to understand their answers always yields a good conversation.
I also split the data in categories like frontend and backend. For example, we could be in a company that values frontend more than backend. And I also filter by time at the company. Things like learning and recognition are very different if we’re considering new hires versus people that has been in the company for 10 years.
Note that the scale is from the mentee’s perspective. For example: it’s hard to measure how much each one is learning because that depends on the backgrounds and experiences. But how much each one feels they are learning is something that I can compare against.
A theme for each month
I try to have a monthly theme to follow. It can be about peer review, talking about specific improvement points, discussing team processes, or about goals and achievements.
This helps me to have a standard plan for all 1on1s. I can prepare and organise better. It’s very important for me because on some months I may be under water with other deliverables. Also, after some time doing this I start to have some standard themes that I revisit. This gives me experience on those themes and allows me to take the most out of my sessions.
Typical plan for a new team
As an example, I’ll share a typical plan when I start working with a new team, or when someone joins my team.
First week review
After the first week I have a small session just to gather feedback and understand if everything is going well. Usually I ask what people think about our onboarding template and how can we make the process better. I also present my framework, the indexes and the goals of our sessions.
Month 1: 10x better question
When I start working with someone I don’t know much about them, and I try to discover what makes them tick. Usually I ask the following question:
Imagine that in 2 years you are 10 times better than today. What does that mean, and how to get there?
Usually I don’t have straight answers and this becomes homework for the next month. It’s very rare to find someone that can easily pin point where they want to be and how to get there.
This question makes people consider:
- What does it mean to be that much better? Do I need to improve my technical skills? Do I need to learn different skills?
- How can I improve that much? Is that even possible?
For me, the best thing here is to understand what people value. This is specially important if I’m doing a session with someone from a different area. I can clearly define a very experienced backend developer and I can help people get there. But if I’m coaching a designer, a data scientist, or any other role that I don’t know much about, this will help me a lot.
Month 2: Setting goals
On the second month people will have a better idea of how they can improve and how to get there. Time to set some goals. I believe that goals are very important so I ask for quarterly goals. I split them into the following categories:
- Professional goals: these are related to our day to day work. We need to deliver features or outcomes. I ask them for a commitment on what they will deliver on the next quarter
- Self improvement goals: I ask for at least one self improvement goal. This can be training, going to conferences or reading books
- Self vision goals: At least one thing that the mentees would like to add to the project. This should be a personal idea and something that hugely motivates them. Like doing some refactor or improve some part of the project. Doing research on some technology or make processes and tooling better
Each one of these topics can be vague and will generate lots of questions.
Month 3: Making the goals SMARTer
On the third month we’ll have several goals on the table. But goals by themselves aren’t that useful. They need to be SMART:
- Time bound
Someone might have a goal of learning Japanese. That’s very vague, so I’ll ask if they can set a time limit (for example one year) and what they expect to achieve on that time frame (having basic fluency). With this in mind it’s easier to understand what they’ll need to invest to get there. They can access if if makes sense and if it is achievable.
Another example is delivering features. I’ll push for delivering features with quality. So we need to define what’s quality. How can we measure that?
All these topics might be abstract but yield great conversations. Actually, I’m usually not interested on the goals themselves, but rather on the process to achieve them. This is where I try to help and where I try to push and be very demanding.
What about giving feedback
You may notice that I’ve talked a lot about gathering feedback and defining goals. But there’s another very important topic that I didn’t cover: how can a manager provide meaningful feedback back. This usually comes in the form of performance evaluations. I think this is a huge topic and I’ll cover it on other articles.
But my point here is that as a manager I can’t be just asking for things. It’s very important to also provide candid feedback and clearly communicate:
- Strengths and weaknesses
- Impact on the team and on the business
Honestly it’s still very hard for me to achieve this. It’s work in progress™.
This framework has been working quite well for me and I’ve gotten good feedback about it. After an year I can see trends in the indexes and see all the goals that were achieved. I can look at the data and ask questions:
- How does the learning index correlate with performance?
- What have we as a team done to improve productivity? Does it show?
- Can we correlate some indexes (like learning or recognition) being low with someone leaving the company?
- Do setting and delivering more self improvement goals affect the learning and comfort zone indexes?
- Can someone be satisfied at the company, but not learning and not feeling productive? Do these people end up leaving? How are their performance reviews?
- Do we have some groups of people that have different feedback? Could we be responsible for that?
- Do we see and index getting worse, try to change the course and see it getting better?
Sometimes I can’t get proper answers. Other times I feel that I’m still missing tools and processes to be better. But that’s okay. It’s all part of my learning process.
Discussion and references
Author Pedro Pereira Santos
License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0