High output 1-1s

Silicon Valley runs on 1:1s. They are the first meetings getting set up on someone’s calendar when they start a new role — weeklies with their manager and reports and closest collaborators, biweeklies with other cross-functional partners working on a related area, monthlies with people to keep in touch with.

You would think that by now we would have the art of 1:1s down to a pat, but every other week I still hear of someone doing status updates in their 1:1s.

This post has some practical recommendations for high output 1:1s happening up or down the management chain.

First: What NOT to do

Can we talk about some anti-patterns first before diving into best practices?

1. Status updates

Not doing status updates in 1:1s is the most common advice you’ll get if you google for how to have good 1-1s, AND YET! So why does no one follow it?

Simple: status updates in 1-1s are not a problem of poorly conducted 1-1s — they are a problem of poor management style. If you are asking your report for detailed status updates, you are not managing effectively.

Andy Grove’s High Output Management (yes, the title of this post is a riff on it) — the ultimate book on managing organizations — describes the production process as a black box: You need to find the “vital few” indicators of performance of the black box rather than peeling it open entirely. Managing a person is similar: you want to find ways to assess their ongoing performance and be able to direct it or course correct effectively, rather than going into the details of everything they are doing. Status updates mean you don’t know how to do the former.

If you find yourself asking for status updates, take a step back and re-think your management style or find a coach (the right coach can be game changing). If you find your manager asking you for status updates regularly, you might just need to find a new manager.

2. Non-urgent but important topics

Using 1:1s for “important but non-urgent topics” sounds great until you think twice about what it means and realize it is a nice platitude. Very often people walk into a 1:1, open up the shared agenda doc and start listing topics that might fall into this category.

The problem with this approach is that in the fast paced world that we live in, the universe of important but non-urgent topics is small. There is a thin line separating important and non-important, usually on a temporal dimension, i.e. something blowing up right now will seem more important than it actually is. If people are coming up with topics to talk about last minute, they are almost always on the wrong side of that thin line.

The inverse of this advice is actually pretty solid: do not wait for the regularly scheduled 1:1 to discuss something urgent. But simply making your 1:1 a parking lot for everything else is not helpful guidance. You need to have a goal and a plan for these conversations.

Second: Goals

Three things that regular 1:1s should drive towards: (1) Achieving a state of “mind meld”, (2) Building relationships, and (3) Coaching / Feedback / Input.

The weight and the exact contents of each of these will vary depending on who that 1:1 is with, but at a high-level here is what they mean:

1. Achieving a state of mind-meld

If you’re not a Star Trek fan, this is what Mind Meld refers to.

By mind-meld in a professional context I mean truly understanding where the other person is coming from, what they are trying to solve or achieve and the hurdles they are facing. You may not need to understand the full breadth of this for everyone you have a regular 1:1 with. Develop a point-of-view on what part of your minds to meld.

2. Building relationships

Professional relationships are not social relationships, and are rarely formed by talking about your weekend activities or playing foosball together. While social activities help build trust which in turns sets the stage for a stronger professional relationship, it is important to find uninterrupted time to talk about work, find alignment on goals, ask for or offer help on an ongoing basis to foster that professional relationship. This is especially important if it may help you find non-obvious opportunities intersecting both your domains or if it will help your teams collaborate more easily.

3. Coaching or Feedback

These are both along a spectrum of the same thing: helping your colleagues improve. The single biggest benefit of working with smart people who get to observe you from close quarters is being able to get their perspective on your work and effectiveness. If you know how to solicit that perspective and leverage it, it has massive compounding payoff. No institutional performance review process even comes close in effectiveness.

Coaching is narrow — you may be coaching only a few people, perhaps those reporting to you or mentees. But feedback should be continually flowing up, down or sideways in an organization. Most feedback is not the urgent kind where you need to pull someone aside and point out what went wrong while it is still fresh. However, most feedback is indeed best delivered in person. Regular 1:1s are a great vehicle for this.

Three: Tactics and best practices

There are a lot of great articles on 1:1s, but it is clear that the majority of people are still not getting it right. Here are some very specific tactics from my playbook, that you can start adopting tomorrow!

1. With your reports

This is the most involved 1:1 of all, where you have the greatest leverage on the outcome. This is also the one deserving its own dedicated post, but let me distill out some essentials:

2. With your manager

How your 1-1s with your manager go depend greatly on your manager. That said, you can still adopt the fundamental principles from above, just inverted, because now you’re the report. Do the following:

3. With a skip-level or elsewhere up the chain

Skip-level 1-1s are a level of management discipline rarely observed in practice. Growing organizations, particularly flatter ones, simply run out of time for this. People, especially ICs, often shy away from proactively reaching up their chain to talk to their VP or the VP of an adjacent function / organization. Yet, it is important to build those relationships and understand their perspective, especially if you are a PM who is influencing the direction of organizations adjacent to your own.

Do the following:

There is a lot of great reading out there on having effective 1:1s. Here are two that I’d recommend, if you’d like to dive in more: The unreasonable effectiveness of one-on-ones and Take your 1:1s to the next level.