One-on-Ones with Self-organizing Teams

I’m a big believer in 1:1 meetings on manager-led teams. It’s a way to connect with people, stay in touch with progress, learn about problems early, coach, work on career goals, offer feedback.

But if you are the manager for a self-organizing team, you need to adjust the way you do 1:1 meetings.

First, unless you are coaching someone on task accomplishment, do not ask about progress and status of tasks. On self-organizing teams, team members organize the work and make commitments to each other. If you as a manager insert yourself into this, you are communicating the the commitment is still to you, not to other team members. If you want to know about task progress, walk into the team room and look at the task wall or burn down chart.

You will probably have less visibility into the day-to-day workings of the team and team members. That means you are less likely to have useful feedback to offer on a regular basis. Ideally, much of the feedback on a team should be peer-to-peer. You need to get involved when the team has tried (using effective feedback techniques, not hints, not vague general statements), there hasn’t been a change, and the behavior is impeding the team. Getting in the middle of a feedback between team members when you don’t need to only creates problems and erodes trust on the team. When someone comes to you hoping you’ll carry a message for them, coach them on how to offer effective feedback, so the situation gets handled where it lives, between the team members.

Don’t meet every week, unless you are coaching on a specific issue (that you are qualified to coach on), or unless there’s a “get well plan” that you need to manage. You do need to stay connected to people; there are lots of informal ways to do this with out meeting every week. Meeting every week sends the message that you still want people to look to you for answers, help, and guidance. You may want that, but consider the effect on the team and their growth and capability.

You may still have a role in approving vacation (work on changing that, since it implies that the company doesn’t trust people very much). Keep that to a formal sign-off role. The first negotiation needs to be with in the team. I talked to a manager who approved a vacation request right after a team had committed to work for an iteration. (Who knows why the person didn’t mention it to the team, but he didn’t. That’s a separate problem.) The manager approved the vacation, then asked the team to cover the guy’s commitments while he was sunning himself on the beach. The team rightly refused, and insisted on renegotiated with the product manager to reflect the fact that they weren’t going to be able to accomplish as much with one team member gone for the entire iteration. The manager realized much later that he’d set the team back in mutual trust and accountability by not sending the guy back to work it out with the team.

Work on professional development, but remember that the team member you are mentoring needs to negotiate tasks and roles with the team. For example, if someone wants to learn more about project management, you don’t get to say “start managing the iteration as a project.” That breaks down the work the team has done to organize their work and erodes shared commitment.

Ask about impediments and blocks outside the team, those that need management action to fix. You can’t fix everything, but you can investigate, look for patterns of blocks mentioned by multiple team members. You can create an impediment backlog and post your burndown to the team.

Ask about HR concerns. For many agile teams, traditional job descriptions, career paths, and other personnel systems don’t fit agile work very well, so you want to know when there’s dissatisfaction and understand when and how policies are getting in the way of teamwork and team work.

Your job with a self-organizing team is to establish conditions for success, make sure the team has appropriate resources and appropriate boundaries, to remove impediments and improve the work system. It’s not to give task direction and hold individuals to account (except as noted above) . The team is responsible for organizing their work, tracking progress, and communicating to you when there’s a problem. You job is not to inflict help–that keeps the team from learning, and keeps them dependent on their manager.

Hierarchy acts as an amplifier, and manager’s actions are always under scrutiny. If you want the team to self-organize and reach their potential, don’t send them a confusing message that they still need to turn to you for day-to-day task guidance, status reporting, and problem-solving.