Iterating on One on Ones

I know, I know – I’ve written about one on ones before.

If you’re not familiar, a one on one is a short sit down between a team lead and a member of the team. Folks much smarter than me have written some really insightful stuff about them, why they’re important, what they’re for. Here’s a great one, from Rands.

I do them once a week, for about thirty minutes, with every member of my team. I’ve been thinking about one on ones quite a lot recently – some feel really productive, some feel like I’m really getting to know the team member, and some feel functional, perfunctory, useful not maybe not productive.

This coming week, we’re starting a new structure of weekly updates. Since Athens’ inception we’ve done roughly weekly updates with our sister team (Sparta, obviously) on Wednesdays.

These updates weren’t really structured at all – folks would write about their home being remodeled, or their recent projects, or their ticket or chat count, or maybe an upcoming vacation. They were nice, but not especially helpful, as someone trying to understand how folks were doing, what they were working on, etc.

We didn’t even have a great reason to be doing them on Wednesdays – at one time, all of the teams at Automattic did updates on Thursdays, so it made sense to schedule internal team updates on Wednesdays.

Our company wide updates are still called Thursday Updates, but they are usually posted on Fridays, sometimes the following Monday, depending on what time zones the team’s members tend to work from.

The time we scheduled the updates didn’t make sense anymore. Our internal stats for chats and tickets run Sunday > Saturday, so to do any kind of regular volume updates meant folks had to do some math by hand, which was a point of friction.

Wednesday was also suboptimal because it was right about the point in the week where folk started to catch their groove – breaking it up with unstructured reflection (or being ignored, or populated with throwaway content), wasn’t the best we could do.

Short story long – starting this coming week we’ll be doing our updates on Monday morning, with a consistent structure for each person on the team, including me. There are expectations for clear and transparent reporting of individual volume, as well as how it compares to our team baseline, which is a sort of cooperative understanding of what a day’s work looks like for us at this time.

This brings us around to the obvious question; what does this have to do with one on ones?

In considering the one on ones that I really enjoy, that I feel are Working, they’re consistent in that they are not simply status updates – they’re not “I did X. This week I’m doing Y.”

Instead, they’re about experiences and approaches, friction and family. They’re about building a relationship rather than communicating things I can easily find elsewhere, especially with our commitment to communication and transparency.

As our weekly personal updates become more focused, I think it’s entirely possible that they could take the place of the more status-update-like one on one conversations. This isn’t to say that I’ll stop doing them (I love one on ones), but rather I’ll have a chance to start doing them correctly – using them to get to know my team, rather than getting to know the stuff around them.

I think it is probably also a good move for me to start being more clear to my team how I think about one on ones – if they are meant for talking about bigger career thinking, about navigating the waters within Automattic, about finding the right way to be impactful, there is likely a better way to structure that.

I’m not sure what that structure will look like – I have been reading about OKRs quite a lot, and it seems like they could fill that not-daily-work-but-still-important-work structure.

I am also trying to be more aware that my natural inclination toward more structure is not always the right move – although, I think I’m probably right about this one!


3 thoughts on “Iterating on One on Ones

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