Keeping your 1 to 1s fresh

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Here we go again…

It’s approaching 3PM. You’re leaning against the wall outside the meeting room, bracing yourself for the sheer boredom and monotony of the coming hour. Sigh.

Each week, you sit down with your manager and, regrettably, you slowly plod through a status update for each of your projects while she makes notes on her laptop. In last week’s meeting, you drifted into daydream whilst you were looking out of the window behind her. You saw a dog trot past the building that had never experienced the concept of having a meeting. You were deeply envious. You wondered whether you could replace your current presence with an audio recording of yourself instead. It would probably be much more engaged.

When you first started attending 1 to 1 meetings with your manager, they were interesting; you felt like you were really getting to know each other, and learning about how each of you liked to work. But now that you’re beyond the introductory phase of your relationship, you’re finding that all that there is left to talk about is the projects you’re doing, week in, week out. Should you both just call this meeting off and resort to email instead? After all, these project updates come through your sprint demo meetings already…

How did it get this way? Do you staff feel the same about their meetings with you? What can you do?

The slide towards monotony

As we previously explored, your 1 to 1 meetings are really important. They’re your primary opportunity to engage with your staff each week and your best chance to really get to know them on a personal level. You can discuss pretty much anything, and when they’re run well they can make a significant impact on the wellbeing and happiness of your employees. They can experience leaving that meeting room each week feeling listened to, supported and understood.

However, as with many aspects of life, comfort and repetition can breed complacency. Once you and your staff have gotten into a rhythm, you may find that your weekly interactions slide from something that you used to look forward to into something that you begin to dread. The mere sight of them in your calendar triggers aversion. Oh dear. Before you know it, you’re both rattling through the same status updates as last week, both wishing that you were somewhere else in the world: maybe in the forest at sunset, or in bed, or perhaps walking alongside that dog that’s never had a meeting.

1 to 1s that are nothing but status updates have no place in your life. They’re boring, they don’t contribute to either of your personal development, and they’re just a repeat of information that could be better recorded and broadcast elsewhere.

I would be so bold as to attempt to coin a theory:

With time, and without conscious effort, all 1 to 1 meetings will degenerate into status updates.

Can we call that Stanier’s Law? Regardless, it’s your duty to make sure that they don’t. But how?

Keeping them fresh

Fortunately, there are a whole bunch of ways that you can make your catch-ups more interesting. They do require more conscious effort and planning, but this is definitely worthwhile. We can split the techniques into two camps: those that involve making the content of the standard meeting more engaging, and those that represent more occasional and radical changes to the meetings to make them more exciting.

Better topics for discussion

Given that the topics of conversation will degrade as you become more comfortable with each other, the first solution is quite obvious: have better topics! I was initially thinking of describing these topics as your poker hand: in that you can choose to play them when you feel the need, but that’s not really how the game of poker works. You don’t play individual cards. Instead, your topics of conversation are more like (and do forgive me) cards in a Pokémon hand, or a Magic: The Gathering hand; you only really use one at a time in response to a situation… but let’s get on with having a look at the topics of conversation you could use before I reveal even more embarrassing things about myself.

  • Personal development. This goes without saying, but do make sure that you check-in regularly on this subject. This doesn’t necessarily mean that this conversation needs to involve peeling through annual review notes, but there are a number of ways that you can probe into how they’re getting along. How productive are they feeling? Do they still feel like they’re being challenged and are working on interesting problems? Why did they seem to get frustrated in that meeting last week? Ask open questions and then explore the deeper reasons why they feel a particular way.
  • Goals. This is slightly more formal, but how are they progressing towards their goals for the year? Are they getting enough opportunity to actively work towards them? Do they even have any? If their goal is to aim for a promotion, are you both allowing enough opportunity for them to work towards it? If not, how can you make that happen? Perhaps their feelings towards their initial goals have waned, and it’s time to talk about setting some new ones.
  • Following their interest in skills or technology. What technology have they read about recently that really excites them? Have they watched any conference talks that have seeded their brains with an idea that they want to try out on their next project? What technology do they think that the company could really benefit from? What features would it enable? Where is the industry going and what are other technology companies doing that catch their attention? How could we replicate that success?
  • What are they excited about? What concerns them? This goes broader than their team or the technology they are using. What did they think of the last company meeting? How do they feel about the company at the moment? Do they think that it is succeeding or failing? Do they feel that the culture of the company is supportive and open, or are there problems on the horizon? Which companies out there appear to be doing well, and why? What makes them successful?

Widening the conversation not only makes your meetings fresher and more interesting, but it helps you get to know each other more deeply.

Mixing it up

Alongside regular injection of more stimulating topics, there are ways to occasionally take the meeting somewhere different entirely: both metaphorically and physically. I often find that in periods where everything is going swimmingly there can be a lot less to talk about; perhaps because we find ourselves naturally drawn to the dramatic. Since those are the times that conversation more easily drifts, so you can try to mix up your meetings further:

  • Rubber duck your ideas. Are either of you working on something interesting at the moment? Why not use each other to sanity check your ideas? You could whiteboard the design of the feature you’re building and your direct report can offer critique. This shows that you value their opinion as a peer which in turn builds trust and rapport. It’s even better if they find holes in it that you can fix together.
  • Go wide with conversation topics. Think outside of the company. Are they concerned about changes in the industry, or any items in the news such as the Cambridge Analytica allegations? What impact does that have on your own company? Which websites and apps are they using that they love at the moment? Why do they love them? Could any of those features work their way into your own software?
  • Flip the meeting. Instead of you driving the meeting, why not let them drive? Why not have them ask you about what you’re working on and what’s on your mind?
  • Go outside! We’ve been encouraging getting out of the building into the fresh air and having walking meetings. Getting away from the meeting room that you sit in every week can be extremely beneficial for the mind and some extra exercise can’t hurt either. Back in 2013, Jeff Weiner wrote about his shift to walking 1 to 1s. Although it’s a bit harder to take notes (often you have to transcribe quickly afterwards) it’s extremely refreshing to get active and have a more energized conversation, especially if you work near some nice public spaces.

In summary

With time, and without conscious effort, all 1 to 1 meetings will degenerate into status updates. Don’t let that happen. Keep the topics of conversation fresh and find ways to keep your regular check-ins as something that you look forward to, rather than something you dread.

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