“I know what the people in my group are doing, Johanna. Each and every one of them.”
“But you have twenty-five people in your group, Stan,” I protested.
“And I walk around and see what every single person is doing. I read their checkins, too. I know what they are doing.”
I was working with a client on the organization’s project portfolio, the order of which projects they were going to do when, and which projects they were not going to staff for now. Stan, the engineering director, was convinced he knew exactly who was working on what. I was equally convinced he did not. I had inside information—some of the developers told me they were working on skunkworks projects, projects that people had started out of their initiative to see if they had any value.
One-on-ones are great for career development conversations. And, they are great for coaching and feedback. And, if you have inquisitive, innovative, entrepreneurial leaders in your organization—especially if you subscribe to the 20 percent time idea that Google and Atlassian promote—you need to know what people are working on.
But one-on-ones aren’t for status reports. They aren’t just for knowing all the projects. They are for feedback and coaching, and meta-feedback and meta-coaching, and for fine-tuning the organization. If you are a manager and you aren’t using one-on-ones, you are not using the most important management tool you have.
One-on-Ones Help You See Organizational Status, Not Micromanagement
If you are a manager and you read developers’ check in comments, that smacks of micromanagement to me. But if you ask a developer if he or she has any great ideas for the next release of a new product or the next release that product management or the product owner hasn’t considered, now you are inviting the developer to think strategically. You can substitute tester, business analyst, writer, or anyone else in that sentence.
One of the most valuable conversations I had as a manager was back when I was managing a test group. During a one-on-one, one of the junior testers said, “JR, we are doing this all wrong.”
Disconcerted, I asked, “How so?”
He said, “We are looking at this product in the wrong way. Here, let me show you another way to slice and dice this.” He drew pictures on my whiteboard the way we were testing and then drew more pictures. He was right. We were testing in a way that didn’t expose enough risks.
“Wow, I’m really glad you told me now. But why did you wait until our one-on-one? I wish you’d said something when we kicked off the testing last week.”
“Well, Steve is the senior tester on the project, right?” I nodded and he continued. “I wasn’t sure how he would take it. I’m pretty junior compared to him. I didn’t want him to take it the wrong way. I wanted to run it by you. And, this way, I get to check it with you first.”
It doesn’t matter if you have more traditional or agile teams. When you have people who are aware of the implied hierarchy and need assurance that their ideas are sound, having a one-on-one with a senior person helps. They need the reassurance and the self-esteem that arises from the feedback they receive from bouncing their ideas off someone else.