1-1s are core to management. Ad-hoc feedback delivery, bi-weekly check-ins with your directs, monthly meetings with your skip-levels, annual performance reviews. Their use cases are well-defined and well-understood.
1-1-1s, on the other hand, can be much more interesting. Significant progress can be made if you’re able to get the three right people in a room together. 1-1-1s are versatile and streamline communications for a variety of situations.
While managers are usually responsible for 1-1s, any leader can call for a 1-1-1.
So, when should you host one?
Your intuition will serve you best. Here are a few questions that will help you exercise these muscles:
- A new role is being integrated into team—how’s it going?
- A new project has caused something to change—are expectations clear?
- A team is visibly disengaged—is there conflict?
In this post, we’ll review 5 effective 1-1-1 formats that deserve a spot in your leadership toolbox.
Use More 1-1-1s
#1 – Finalize A Reporting Change
A 1-1-1 can finalize a transition for an internal reporting change. This is held between you (the manager), your soon-to-be ex-direct, and their future manager. The goal of the meeting is to review past performance along with future expectations for the engineer. It’s imperative that this is done together with all three parties.
#2 – Temporary Project Resource Reallocation
An important project is gaining momentum and its proper staffing depends on temporary resource reallocations. Temporary only because no one enjoys a re-org for the sake of a project. Nevertheless, something has changed—are expectations clear?
Maybe not because we have new people in the mix. What is the time commitment for the new project members? Which milestones are expected to be finished before they can disengage? How is work going to be delegated?
If you’re leading such a endeavor, you’ll be grateful for the additional resources and stressed at the same time with additional project coordination. To increase the odds of success, an early 1-1-1 can firmly establish working expectations with new project members. This can be held between you (the project lead), the re-allocated engineer, and their manager.
How is this all going to go down? Work it out and get it in writing.
#3 – Staff Engineer Expectation Setting
Staff Engineers are held to a different set of expectations than other engineers. Companies expect Staff Engineers to have a large, organization-influencing, scope of impact.
Ironically, company-impacting problems are found inside local teams. To avoid the trap of the “Floating Engineer”, some Staff Engineers (with the support of their managers) choose to embed inside a team.
If this happens, how do we manage expectations?
A common scenario is when an Engineering Manager utilizes a Staff Engineer with strong mentorship skills to level up a team. Their impact will be measured by how much each individual progresses as an engineer; their impact will not be measured by lines of code written or projects shipped.
These expectation must be established between you (the manager), the resident team leader, and the Staff Engineer. The team leader should not expect the Staff Engineer to perform the same duties as his or her other engineers. A Staff Engineer on the team doesn’t mean we get 20 extra points of sprint velocity. It means that each IC will receive thoughtful technical reviews for their work.
Use the 1-1-1 to make sure everyone is on the same page.
#4 – General Role Expectation Setting
The previous idea can be leveraged more generally. As your responsibilities and personnel grow, you will have special roles that periodically need to be integrated into your teams.
These situations often arise when an individual—who is scoped at a group level—gets assigned to work with a specific team. Common examples of this include scarce pools of Technical Writers, Product Designers, or Technical Program Managers.
If the group you manage has just been assigned its first TPM, what should you expect out of them? Is this person focused on goal-setting processes or project delivery? Or are you not even sure?
There are a couple 1-1-1 formats that can help set expectations.
As a manager, you have your own ideas about how your group can utilize the new TPM. Perhaps you want him or her to focus on goal-setting and to produce a colocated list of opportunities across all your teams. Before pushing further, is this what the TPM is actually expected to do? You can host a quick 1-1-1 between yourself (the manager), the TPM, and the TPM’s manager. Here you’ll be able to set short and long terms goals for the TPM and ensure he or she is being evaluated properly.
If you decide that a TPM is best situated helping out a specific team with project delivery, you may ask one of your team leaders to integrate the TPM into their team. If you’re the team leader in this situation, you can hold a tactical 1-1-1 between yourself (the team leader), the to-be-integrated TPM, and your partner Product Manager. Here you’ll be able to discuss new team dynamics and brainstorm ideas for how the TPM can add value.
#5 – Pushing Decisions Forward
At a large organization, one of the most important things you can do is to make decisions.
One of the major obstacles standing in the way of decision making is two—exactly two—opposing opinions. Two high-ranking engineers have two competing views on how to design a system. Neither opinion is right or wrong; they are just different.
A 1-1-1 can be used in these situations to move a stalemate forward. Opposing opinions are usually held by peers. This is often the result of what Andy Grove has dubbed “peer-group syndrome”, when a meeting amongst peers goes around in circles.
Andy’s fix for this is the “peer-plus-one” method, when a senior person is injected into the conversation. More concretely, this can take the shape of a well-moderated 1-1-1. Example formats could be between you (a principal engineer) alongside two Staff Engineers or perhaps you (an engineering manager) alongside two senior engineers.
The 1-1-1 meeting is a versatile tool for engineering leaders. If utilized properly, these meetings create clarity in expectations, push decisions forward, and diplomatically establish working agreements.
What kind of 1-1-1 formats do you enjoy using?