When I started I had only a vague idea of what I want: I wasn’t happy with how my 1on1s look like and I wanted to improve them.
I started by writing down a rough version of my goal: “conduct perfect 1on1s”. I looked at it critically. The goal was very vague. I understood immediately that I need to make it much more precise to be able to actually work on it and to reach it eventually.
In this article I describe in details how I approached the topic and what are the results of my pursuit of “perfect 1on1s”.
In case you aren’t really interested in 1on1s. You should still read the article to learn how to approach soft-skill goals in general. 1on1s are only an example here (but a solid, real-life one). Enjoy!
Setting goals for the soft skills
After I wrote down my first version of the goal I got stuck for a longer while. I hit the problem of “how do you go about goals for soft skills?”. There is an obvious difference between such goals and easily-measurable ones (e.g. “I want to be able to do 20 pull-ups”). How do you express and measure them? Can I have something like SMART goal for my soft-skills improvement attempts?
After some googling I decided to follow the approach suggested by Eileen Azzara in her brilliant article: “SMART Goal Examples for Developing Leadership Competencies”.
In the article Eileen recommends to go through 4 steps:
- Add context
- Consider desired state
- Identify success measures
- Identify data points to capture the success measures
It took me about an 1h to write down everything about my 1on1s goal following Eileen’s 4 steps. Then I reviewed it few times during the next days and eventually I ended up with a 2-pages doc, that I will discuss here section by section.
I started as Eileen suggests — by adding some context to my rough goal (“conduct perfect 1on1s”). This is what I wrote:
I have a lot of 1on1s with many people, mostly from my team. Some of this interactions are potentially very important, but often I feel I haven’t made most of them. I already have some sound habits — e.g. taking notes.
My 1on1s serve a variety of purposes — from maintaining relationship to pushing some projects forward.
Reading it now I don’t find it especially enlightening but it served it purpose — it helped me to realise the scope of the topic I wanted to tackle and brought to my mind various 1on1s that I already conducted. This beginning helped me to deal with the next sections.
Now it was the time to ponder over the following question: “what would you call a perfect 1on1?”. I scratched my head few times and eventually came up with these points:
- 1on1 with a right person & at the right time
- I know my goals & I achieve them
- Tasks assigned — well understood by X, enough of context was discussed, X understands the importance, actions are clear, APs (action points) written down & acknowledged
- Communication on deep level, good understanding of each other, no masks, openness
- Friendly atmosphere
- No rush, time for both to discuss whatever is worth discussing
- Feedback gathered after 1on1
This was probably the most pleasant part of the task. Imagining what it would feel like to perform a perfect 1on1 was very inspiring to me. I envisioned success and felt even more motivated to achieve it.
While working on this section I already started thinking about all the changes I should introduce to my current 1on1 approach. Many ideas whirled in my head but I refrained myself from jumping to conclusion already. I knew that I still need some more preparation.
Based on this description of a perfect 1on1 I was able to come up with a way better specified goal. Remember that on the beginning all I had was a simple “conduct perfect 1on1s”. And now I figured out that my true goal is to:
Conduct 1on1s with the members of my team, which bring value to both of us, help important projects move forward, and make us understand each other better.
As you can see this goal covers many aspects of 1on1s. It does mention the effectiveness but also the building of rapport.
I read the goal few times checking how I felt with it. It felt good (it still does!). This is the goal I can commit myself to.
The next point is to discuss the “success measure”. How would I know that I’m getting closer to perfection with my 1on1s?
Below you will find my notes on the topic. I haven’t tried to make them beautiful, all I did was to write down the key points. Here we go:
- Sharing deeper insights / human-level conversation
- Was I prepared? Did I knew my goals? Had I achieved them?
- The new APs are clear, relevant and related to important projects
- The APs from previous 1on1s done (and done well)
- People value 1on1s with me (it brings them value). They want to have it.
- 1on1s with me help people develop
- Feedback gathered
- Notes taken
When writing this I already felt that troubles are coming. I knew it won’t be easy to assess how am I doing with my 1on1s.
The next point that Eileen suggests is to decide how to get data required to measure the success. I found the following few ways to collect data that would tell me if my goal was achieved:
- Ask people after 1on1s for feedback
- Count nb of tasks (APs) assigned vs. nb of tasks done
- My subjective feeling — did we have a deeper-level conversation?
- Was there enough time? Have we finished in hurry?
All 4 sections finished
As I read my document now I can clearly see there is some redundancy. For example the “success measure” part is pretty similar to the description of a perfect 1on1 that I wrote few paragraphs earlier. True, but going through each of these sections while writing the document helped me a lot to fine-tune my thinking. The (sort-of) coherent document that you read now is a result of many back-and-forth re-reading and re-writing that wouldn’t had happened if not the variety of questions I had to ask myself when working on each section. The bottom line: do not skip any section even if you feel like repeating yourself. It is worth your time.
The action plan
After ending the document I already felt I accomplished something. I knew my destination and I started thinking about the steps that would get me there. This felt right.
Now I was ready to start writing down my action plan.
My plan consists of some one-time actions but most of them are repeatable and need to become my habit if I want to reach my goal.
- Review the list of my 1on1s. Get rid of the interactions I don’t need. Expected result: I can focus (and have time to prepare) for truly important ones. AKA “don’t optimize what you shouldn’t be doing at all”
- Review the notes (shared doc) at least 2 times before the meeting (2–3 days before the meeting & in the morning of the meeting day). The goal: Making sure I’m always prepared. Double the reminders so even if one of them fails to attract my attention (you know, something important & urgent attacks me out of sudden) I will have a second chance of preparing to 1on1s.
- Perform my APs. The goal: If I want my interlocutors to be always prepared I need to be prepared myself. Lead by example, isn’t it?
- Set goal(s) for each 1on1. The goal: Do not let your 1on1s to turn into “blah blah blah” sessions. Know why you want to meet someone and what you want to achieve during the meeting. Also helps to cancel (or postpone) 1on1s if you see no good reason for them at the moment.
- Take notes. The goal: Always be able to check out the main points of previous discussions. Taking into account how many 1on1s and other interactions I have, without notes I would keep forgetting about something important.
- Always examine the AP from previous meetings. The goal: Just a reminder to myself so that I get into habit of discussing the realisation of previously set 1on1s during the next meeting.
- Do the retro afterwards. The goal: Reflect on how I worked (i.e. how my 1on1s looked like) so I can reinforce what was good and change, fix and improve what isn’t really working.
First of all it makes no sense to improve what shouldn’t be done at all. So I started with the review of all 1on1s I had. Should I have them at all? How often? How long should they take? When I finished my calendar looked definitely better than before: I had some breath space, so to say (this didn’t happen in one day — I needed some time to discuss it with people).
As for the recurring parts of my plan I set various reminder so that I never forget about them.
For example, I scheduled two 1h time slots on Friday: one for a retrospective (I will discuss in a minute what I mean by this) and one for reviewing and working on APs that were assigned to me. I also made sure that each day with some 1on1s planned I have at least 30 min time slot in the morning to prepare.
To conduct a valuable retrospective I needed some notes about each 1on1. I decided to gather them in a spreadsheet (see an example below). I decided to fill it down with notes on Fridays and then look for some patterns, things to improve and such. My spreadsheet consisted of pretty many columns and looked roughly like the one you see below. I spent some time for conditional formatting so that I could see in a glance how was I doing in the areas that interest me.
The results so far
It didn’t take long to observe some positive changes in my 1on1s. In fact, it surprised me how fast I progressed. Here I list the most notable achievements:
- I got rid of some simple “technical” issues (e.g. time, lack of notes). This, surprisingly, gave me a lot of confidence — at least I know I have some basics sorted out (which guarantees that don’t fail miserably for embarrassingly stupid reasons — e.g. because I don’t remember what we discussed the last time).
- The retrospectives are really working! I get tons of valuable observations thanks to the fact that I regularly ask myself few questions about the 1on1s I just had. My spreadsheet contains some comments regarding each 1on1 I had and now before each meeting I check the notes from the previous ones with the same person — there is always something interesting to take care of. Yes, doing this extra work with spreadsheet pays off big time after few weeks!
- I also observed that my 1on1s bring now many more APs than before. This is probably because I’m much better prepared — I enter the meeting room knowing what I want, and I’m determined to get it. This is a notable change, and a very valuable one, taking into account that part of my goal is to “move the important projects forward”. APs are exactly the way to do it.
- After few weeks many of actions I decided to do regularly changed into something that comes naturally. Preparing for 1on1s or taking extra time to write down few notes is not an extra effort anymore. It is a habit now (which means it doesn’t hurt anymore).
Changes & Experimenting
As you have probably heard “plans are useless, planning is everything” so I’m not intimidated by the fact not everything works as I envisioned. On the contrary — I adjust to what is happening and try to experiment to find out better ways of doing things. Here are some examples of how it works:
- My spreadsheet that I use to take meta-level notes about my 1on1s changed over time. I have to say it was rather spacious at the beginning. During retrospective sessions I removed some columns which weren’t bringing any valuable information. The most important ones are two columns which contains my comments: one for things that went well and the other one for things that could be improved.
- I changed the frequency and length of many 1on1s. While retrospecting on how they went it became clear that I need more time for some 1on1s. In other cases it occurred that less frequent meetings are good enough. Thanks to these adjustments now I meet with the right people at right intervals for the right amount of time.
- Also the retro evolved. The first week I used it to fill in the spreadsheet at the end of the week… Bad idea! I find out that after few days I don’t remember the details of a 1on1. Now I make notes immediately after the meetings (or at the end of the day), so the retro is more about a high level view. The goal of retrospective it to detect some patterns, pinpoint gaps in the whole process, find improvements for issues reappearing in 1on1s with different people etc. Also, each retro ends up with some action points that I focus on during the next week. For example one retro resulted in the following APs:
- Book a good meeting right room so to avoid distractions during the 1on1.
- Look in the eyes when speaking about things that bother you.
- I have tried to get rid of laptop during my 1on1s. I started to print my notes (notes from previous 1on1s and goals for the current one) and tried to take notes with pen instead of using a laptop. It is definitely nicer to discuss without laptop on the table. However, it is much harder to take notes on paper and I realised that few times that I haven’t wrote down some important points. Frankly, I don’t know how to do it right — pen & paper contributes to better discussion atmosphere, but my notes are worse when I use them. I’m still looking for a perfect solution here.
So, have I become the master of 1on1s? Oh, no, I don’t think so. Human-to-human interactions is an endless source of surprises and there is no such thing as being “perfect”. Still, I feel I have made a lot of progress. I feel much stronger and much more confident now.
Also, the whole 1on1s project taught me a very important lesson. It made me realise the power of focus and discipline: you can achieve a lot when you focus on one activity, you plan your actions painstakingly and execute it day by day.
I’ve also gained confidence that I can improve in other areas if I treat them with the same dedication.
The approach to dealing with soft-skill goals recommended by Eileen Azzarra helped me a lot to start. Later on, this is all about discipline, focus, and learning by doing.
…so, what do you plan to start working on?