Better 1:1's, Leadership, Meetings

Focused 1:1 Questions

TalkingI’ve run a large number of 1:1’s over my career with varying degrees of success in a large part due to how they are scheduled and organised.

Time to time I have had 1:1’s that run pretty much like this.

“Hey, how’s it going”
“Good”
“Anything you want to discuss”
“No”
“Great, catch you next time”

This clearly isn’t how you want 1:1’s, which should be based around a developers goals, issues, progress and long term objectives, to go.

Sometimes they’ve gone like this

“Hey, how’s it going”
“Shit”
“Want to tell me about it”
“Lots of ranting”
“Ok, we’ll see what we can do”

While there’s nothing wrong with venting, and at times it’s both therapeutic and beneficial, you don’t want it to be unstructured and scatter shot.

I’m going to discuss actual structures of 1:1’s at a later date, but in this post I want to concentrate on a way to pull out ideas and thoughts from the person you’re speaking to that you otherwise wouldn’t get to.

Focused 1:1 Questions

Every two weeks (since we have 1:1’s every two weeks), all the developers on my teams get a email on a Monday morning asking them a couple of questions.

Hello

Here’s this weeks one to one questions!

Give them some thought over the next few days so you’re prepared for your meeting. Remember that these won’t be the only things we can talk about in the meeting, but it’s a good start. So make a note of anything else you’ll want to discuss and bring those notes with you.

What motivates you?

How can we make the team a safer place for honest and open discussion?

Thanks
Your friendly neighbourhood 1 to 1 question server…

Each email asks them a couple of specific and direct questions. Sometimes these questions might be uncomfortable, sometimes they might be quite lighthearted.

The expectation is that the developers spend a couple of days thinking about these questions, maybe making notes for their 1:1’s, with a view to come to the 1:1 ready to spend about 10 minutes (or more) per question discussing it openly.

The people running the 1:1’s get a similar but slightly different email

Here’s this weeks one to one questions!

Give them some thought over the next few days so you’re prepared for your meeting. Remember that these won’t be the only things we can talk about in the meeting, but it’s a good start. So make a note of anything else you’ll want to discuss and bring those notes with you.

What motivates you?

A simple question, but one that can highlight a significant number of factors that drive the person you are speaking to. Motivation, inspiration, desire and drive all come together to create the person in front of you.

If someone is struggling to find an answer to this question, then you probably have a serious case of disengagement that could be difficult to rectify. Try to discover when they last felt driven or when they last felt engaged and committed to something or someone. You can then try to take that information and see how they think this situation differs, or where they could apply some of the ideas from then to now.

How can we make the team a safer place for honest and open discussion?

Teams should be open, honest and safe places to discuss ideas, share experiences and to air issues effecting some or all of the individuals. If a team is closed to discussion, fearful or reluctant to be open it cannot grow and the team will never develop.

You should avoid suggestions around anonymous discussion as that will not foster open communication, but it can be a way to discuss issues that block openness if the person you are talking to doesn’t have any suggestions for you.

Thanks
Your friendly neighbourhood 1 to 1 question server…

Hopefully the difference is quite clear.

Along with the questions, the organisers of the 1:1’s get a bit of a cheat sheet, helping them understand the expectations of the question but more importantly how you might direct the conversation if the person in front of them is not forthcoming with their thoughts.

And this is often the hardest part. You can make all the attempts in the world to engage with people on your team but sometimes those efforts will fail. This may not be a reflection on them, more on their lack of confidence answering more difficult questions or just not really feeling like they have something to offer.

Honest and Open Discussion

Now it’s not coincidence that I use the above questions as an example, because one of the questions directly impacts the quality of the 1:1’s you’re having.

How can we make the team a safer place for honest and open discussion?

For this to work it is vital that the person you’re speaking to feels comfortable being honest and open, and not fearful of repercussions should they say something that goes against the grain.

This can be hard work depending on the culture of the company in which you’re working.

In a previous company, where I used these type of questions outside of the 1:1’s, I was explicitly told to stop doing it. Not because nothing was coming out of them, but because the questions were raising difficult (though important) issues that the company was unwilling or ignorant of solving.

It’s no wonder nothing changed.

But even in situations like those you can change the process so you bring those topics up in more ad-hoc conversations, or in a group setting that makes the discussion much more open and free flowing.

And while this might seem slightly subversive, it’s your role as a manager and a leader to identify these issues and, where possible, find ways to resolve or at least lessen their impact. Otherwise, to put it bluntly, you’re not doing your job.

A Simple Set Up

If anyone is interested, this process simply uses an AWS instance which is triggered to fire off at select intervals and fire off a couple of questions from a pre-defined list. It uses a DynamoDB database instance to store various properties (such as manager and employee lists, the question index they are on etc.) and send the mails out if a specific interval has passed.

Because it’s hip at the moment, it also supports posting to our Slack channels so the questions being posted are visible to everyone.

The only issue I have is that my current company pre-fixes a massive and rather aggressive [SPOOFED MAIL] on front of the subject matter because I use AWS SES to send the mails, which spoofs the address that it’s coming from.

That’s a little bit annoying…

An Invitation

Since the set up is so easy (though I don’t have a fancy web UI to set up and manage the database) I’m offering anyone reading this the opportunity to use my app free of charge. If you want to have 1:1 questions sent out, just send me a mail or contact me on Twitter with the following information

  • The mail address the questions should come from
  • The list of mails the ‘Cheat Sheet’ email should be sent to
  • The list of mails the basic email should be sent to
  • The day you want the mail sent
  • The interval you want the mails sent (every 2 weeks, every 4 weeks etc.)
  • If you use Slack I can also set that up if you’re willing to let me have your Slack token and a channel to post to.

Enjoy your 1:1’s – at the end of the day they should be engaging and interesting, regardless of what you’re discussing!

 

Title image by z rahen. Used under license.

2 thoughts on “Focused 1:1 Questions”

  1. Great post.

    I’ve only every worked at one company that cared enough to even do 1:1 meetings, and even then, I suspect little training or advise was given to the people running them (every 1:1 I’ve ever had was like your first example, right up until the one I announced my departure)

    It seems such a shame to waste this valuable time, I’d like to experience a 1:1 lead by someone who really knew what they were doing.

    (Also that story about your previous company is both scary and completely unsurprising, glad you’ve found somewhere better)

    Like

    1. Thanks Andrew.

      I’ll be the first to admit that some of the shorter meetings have been at the start of my career, when I’d never received training in how to conduct them (or even been the recipient of one).

      Training on how to run 1:1’s is actually quite difficult as you need to do it in isolation. Interview training for example lets you sit in and observe the interviewer, slightly harder for 1:1’s 🙂

      Having said that, guidance and constant discussions about how well they are going certainly fills in some of the training requirements around this.

      Like

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