No More Meeting Mutinies

by Johanna Rothman. This article was originally publised in Software DevelopmentMagazine, March 2002.

Jim, a development manager, met up with some of his staff in the cafeteria. “Hey, you’ll be late for our weekly status meeting,” he said. “Hurry up!”

Don, a senior developer, stopped, turned and stared at him. “No way. I’m not spending another minute in one of your status meetings. I have work to do.” Don turned and walked away. Jim stood there, astonished, as each of his staff members followed suit, with the polite equivalent of “Hell no, we won’t go.”

Smooth Sailing

To put a stop to meeting mutinies without emulating Captain Bligh, you need innovative ways to discover what your staff is doing. If you can’t get enough information from MBWA (Management By Walking Around), try one-on-one meetings with your team. You have your employee’s full attention. They have your full attention. There are no interruptions—and no opportunities for evasion or invisibility. Seize the moment, and make it a weekly institution.

In weekly one-on-ones, you conduct regular, private conversations with each employee to ascertain his or her work status, and then offer the employee some feedback. With this personalized approach, you can get regular updates on project progress, mentor your staff and, if you’re lucky, you’ll even get some feedback about your own management work.

Unfortunately, one-on-ones seem to be less than ubiquitous, perhaps because so few managers understand their purpose or how to effectively conduct them. However, they are worth learning about—regularly scheduled one-on-ones can help you sail through the inevitable rough waters that each and every team must navigate to keep projects on course.

Time Is of the Essence

Set a specific one-on-one meeting time each week to talk with each of your employees, and keep that time inviolate. Your staff members are planning to meet with you at that specific time—they may not be ready to meet with you earlier—and they may have some time-critical information, so meeting later isn’t a good idea, either.

Adhere to one-on-one scheduling religiously. I once had a manager who habitually canceled our one-on-ones over a two-month period. At that point, I assumed that he was ready to fire me. Instead, he was buying himself some time so that he could give me a raise and a promotion. However, because I hadn’t actually talked to him in a couple of months, I resigned before he could give me the good news. He learned the hard way that habitually canceling one-on-one meetings can disenfranchise employees—or even lose them.

In general, I meet with everyone once a week. However, if you have more than 10 employees in your group, consider meeting with the self-directed people once every two weeks and with the less self-directed people once a week. You run the risk of letting problems lie fallow when you meet with people less often than once a week, but meeting biweekly is better than not meeting at all. When I manage other managers, I also use my one-on-one time to ask how their one-on-ones are going—I don’t schedule regular one-on-ones with their staff.

I prefer one-on-ones that last about 30 minutes. I discuss each person’s status in depth, and still have enough time to do any necessary coaching. When I’m coaching someone through a specific task or project, I may extend our one-on-ones to 45 minutes or an hour for a few weeks. Don’t worry if you don’t use all the time you’ve allotted for your meeting: It’s easier to finish early than to run late and scramble for another scheduled date to continue the conversation.

One-on-One Anatomy

To initiate a one-on-one, ask an open-ended question. Then, wait for the answer. I generally ask questions such as “How’s it going?” or “What’s important to you these days?” If I get a nonspecific answer like “Fine” or “Nothing,” I then ask about each project the person is working on. If I still get a “Fine” answer, I might ask, “What have you seen or heard that leads you to believe everything is fine?” or “What’s not fine?” or otherwise attempt to draw out the specifics. If I still don’t hear any, I tell my employee that I need specifics, and ask if they know a better way to tell me what’s going on. Through this exchange, we come to an agreement about how we’re going to communicate.

I then ask specific questions about the work done the previous week, and what’s on the agenda for the next few weeks, essentially asking them to break down their work into inch-pebbles (small tasks of no more than two days’ duration). I ask if they think they can keep to their estimates, and, if not, why not—and I don’t blame them for any incorrect estimates. As we jointly discover what happened, the employee can estimate better the next time, and I can understand any estimation blind spots. I also ask questions about problems I can solve: “Are there any obstacles you need removed?”

I also use the one-on-one to discuss employee goals and performance on a weekly basis, especially if I have specific objectives (management by objective) that my staff is supposed to meet. In a fast-changing environment, the weekly one-on-ones help me determine which goals to keep and which goals to modify. I also use the time to give employees quantitative and timely feedback on their performance.

During the one-on-one, the employee and I usually come up with things to do during the next week: our action item list. We then review the action item list at the end of the meeting. This helps you verify that both you and your employee have reached consensus on the upcoming steps.

No Finger-Pointing

Discuss issues to solve problems, not to blame staff. An effective one-on-one creates a safe environment that facilitates communication. Encourage employees to use one-on-ones as an early warning system, to identify problems and to determine what sort of help they may need in the future. If you blame your staff or otherwise discourage them, they’ll clam up, and you’ll find out about problems only when they’re too big to deal with (see “Other People’s Problems,” Sept. 2001).

Often, I suspect that an employee is having a problem, but they don’t think they need my help. That’s when I clarify my expectations about the deliverables: “OK, I’ll expect you to check in your changes in time for Ted to make his. You’ll let me know if that won’t happen, right?” This nonthreatening method makes the employee aware of workflow deadlines, and offers an opportunity to ask for help.

One-on-ones go both ways: If you’d like to know whether or not you’re doing a good management job, use the one-on-one to get feedback from your staff. You may use former New York City mayor Ed Koch’s direct approach—”How am I doing?”—or ask more specific questions: “Did that meeting work for you?”

Encompassing the Group

When I manage groups in which people still need to know what other people are working on, I save that for my weekly group meeting, after the one-on-ones. Instead of everyone sequentially reporting on their status, I use a few alternative techniques:

  1. Ask for a volunteer to describe his project, and what he found difficult, challenging or interesting about his work that week. This description provides a great springboard for more discussion about the project or about the technical approach to a particular issue.
  2. Ask for a volunteer to describe her problem as a discussion point for some team problem-solving.
  3. When everyone’s working on a different project, or if you’re managing a group with more than one project, have people sign up to give brief (no more than 20-minute), informal presentations about their project-general presentations, focused not on problems, but on sharing information. Then, the staff members can describe how their work fits into the project. I hold only one of these project presentations per week; preferably, one project a month. If necessary, I’ll coach the project team (or the person), so that they don’t spend more than an hour on presentation preparation.

Beyond Flotsam and Jetsam

By now, you’re probably saying, “Oh, sure. As if I have time to attend all these meetings with my staff. What planet are you on?” The same planet as you.

You’re already spending this time with your staff, but in bits and pieces, not chunks. All this communication flotsam and jetsam—e-mails, voice mails, hurried discussions in the hall—they’re all one-on-ones—just not the most efficient kind. With all those interruptions, it’s a wonder you accomplish any work—or clear communication—at all.

If you plan for one-on-ones, incorporating them into your weekly schedule, not only do people tend to gather their issues, preparing for the time they have your undivided attention, they’ll feel free to discuss issues they won’t bring up in public or in impromptu discussions: their discontentment with their current role, HR issues or other problems that could keep them from succeeding at work. With one-on-ones, your meetings will become enthusiastic exchanges of information, instead of court-martials for mutineers.

Like this article? See the other articles. Or, look at my workshops, so you can see how to use advice like this where you work.

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