Everyone is doing 1on1s wrong. I think.

Jun 14, 2023 · 5 min read · 4,328 views

Let’s be real.

The approach to meetings and especially 1on1s in startups is a mess.

Everyone has tons of 1on1s in a week. We do them just to stay up to date with whatever the latest plans with projects are.

And it’s no wonder our calendars are full of meetings. You are supposed to have 1on1s with all your reports each week, with your peers, with your manager, maybe with some other leadership folks, and then on top, you add team or project meetings. Even in a small-sized team we are now already talking about 15-20 meetings a week for any manager.

And all of a sudden important communication only ends up happening during strenuous 1on1on1on1on1 trains. And you are either lucky and stay early in those trains or you are relegated to only hear-say information.

But why? Why are we doing this? Are we just cargo-culting Google? Are we channeling our inner Andrew Grove? Is your company Intel or a 20 people startup?

So, what's the alternative?

This feels so obvious that i am scared to post it, but here we go.

  • Use Project meetings (1:n)
    • for project updates
    • make sure they are efficient
  • Use 1on1s (1:1)
    • NOT for project updates
    • but mainly as people-time

What do i mean by that?

Simple: (imho) If you use your 1on1s to discuss projects you actually do not provide management time. You end up have the worst possible project discussion (1on1on1on1on1 trains) and to make it worse your reports never get to discuss important non-project-related (eg personal) issues although they see you weekly.

You want to avoid this.

Let’s free up your calendar. How?

Step 1: Have efficient project meetings

Every important project should have a regular project check-in meeting

  • At the frequency useful for the team (usually weekly)
  • Ran, owned, and prepared by the team of the project
    • The meeting is not meant to “update management and stakeholders”
      • but for the team to get dedicated & focused time by those people for decisions they need
    • If you feel uncertain about distributing ownership within teams maybe my other article helps
  • The team shares notes before
    • They include status, blockers, and needed decisions.
    • And adds decisions made afterwards to the document
  • Afterwards, you share this document team-wide so that people can skip these meetings without FOMO
    • This also allows you to require focus and attention from the people who actually attend
  • If you realize that too many stakeholders want to join a meeting to be productive
    • Split it in two, one operation team-internal and one with a larger audience

Step 2: Focus 1on1s on the 1s

Shift 1on1s with reports on personal/people issues

  • 1on1s should be dedicated time for the individual you are managing
    • They are about individual growth and personal issues, not project updates
    • You, as their manager, can bring topics but it’s their meeting, their time, their topics
    • Their job is not to update you
      • It’s your job to be available and prepared
  • Talk about
    • Their career ambitions, personal growth, etc
    • Struggles w/ people, mentor them, address strategic blockers and inter-team issues
      • See what challenges should actually be resolved on you leadership level
  • While the time shouldn't be used for project updates for many people it’s very natural to start there
    • Let them prepare a document (see below)
    • Use the project discussions as small-talk to ease into personal discussions and more complex issues
  • Remember: It’s their meeting, their time, their topics

Step 3: Have great 1on1 meeting docs

This is especially useful for peer-1on1s. In these kinds of meetings, you frequently have to discuss multiple issues at once, and most likely neither party joined the other team’s project meetings. Too much to discuss, too little time.

But the same format is useful for report-1on1s too.

Create good docs; discuss soft issues in them; move large amounts of the meeting async

  • Use one running document (so there is no excuse/delay)
    • Add new sections for each 1on1 date
    • Both sides add their topics
  • Don’t write in prose, use bullet points
    • Have one section just for FYI updates
      • Project updates, decisions the other person might know, etc
    • Add a Discussion section and list topics there
      • Answer in the document whatever is not sensitive
  • After the 1on1 add Decisions and Todos sections to the document
  • If you become really good at this you realize you can even frequently skip some of the peer-1on1s and just do them async

If you remove project updates from 1on1s and focus on personal growth topics you can reduce 1on1s to once every 2-4 weeks. Creating a lot of space in your calendar. Do not take this as an excuse to slack on the 1on1s with reports. Remember: Talk while talking is easy, so it's easier to talk during harder times.

Hope this helps!