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.

12 thoughts on “One-on-Ones with Self-organizing Teams

  1. Thank you for this post! It is perfect timing as I’m about to head off to work to hold my regular one on one meetings. I particularly like the emphasis you put on the team commitments are just that – commitments to the team and not to the manager.

  2. Thanks for this. I recognize some of my own failings as a manager.

    One thing: you wrote “…need management action to fix. You can fix everything” but I think you probably mean “can’t fix everything”.

    1. Thanks for your comment, and thanks for letting me know about the typo. Proof reading is not my best skill, I appreciate help from my friends.

  3. Thanks for this Esther. I am a strong believer in the value of 1:1 meetings. Several years ago, I was in a situation where a new manager was hired for our team. I asked to have a chance to talk with him to get to know him. Part of my chat was to ask if we could have a regular 1:1 meeting. He said he didn’t see the need/value of that; if I needed to talk about something with him I could just come to him and have a meeting then. For me, that sent such a bad message. “We don’t need to talk unless YOU have an issue.” Hmmmm. Oddly, while he refused to hold these meetings, I knew that his manager had regular 1:1 meetings with him.

    I currently have a weekly 1:1 with my manager. I actually like weekly. It is very informal. It is not about task status. There is no set topic or agenda. We just make sure that in our busy work week we mindfully take time to sit just the two of us. Sometimes we pair on some work that one of us is working on: a presentation, a blog, a whitepaper. Or we just brainstorm about the upcoming month or quarter about what might help me focus. That might be a lot of strain for managers with many direct reports. For me though, I have come to value this cadence of chatting just the two of us.

    Thanks!
    Jean

    1. Hi, Jean –

      I appreciate you for your thoughtful comments.

      You raise a really important point that I didn’t call out in my post. Spending time with someone can send the message that you value that person or it can send the message that you feel you need to check up on them. When the focus is on understanding the other persons concerns and helping them be productive, it builds trust.

      ED

  4. Sitting here at the Agile 2010 Conference with so many talks about the benefits of self-organized, you post stands out. As time goes by, more people are buying into the idea of giving the team the autonomy its needs to perform at a higher level (and have fun while doing it) but true adoption will not happen until we help managers find their place in the organizational structure.

    Most humans are initially change resistant until they see the benefits and the value for changing. Managers are people and they need to understand what will happen to them after they have gone Agile.

    Blog post like this one give insight into what the new role can be for people managers and that they don’t (necessarily) need to be worried. As coaches, I believe it is our responsability to educate and create the space for people manager to perform well and be happy doing it.

    Thanks for another great post Esther.

  5. hi Esther
    we recently moved intot he concept of self organizing teams and we still do the daily standups to make sure everythignis going alrite and there are no issues that need to be looked inot.
    Our product managers want to know the status update as we do a 4 weekly release.

    what d you think abt this?

    1. Hi, Vemu –

      One-on-ones don’t replace the team’s daily stand up meeting. The two meeting have very different purposes.

      The stand up is for the team to sych up with each other, and coordinate their work for the day. This is not a status report for the manager (or anyone else)–though a manager or PO can learn about status and issues by listening. Team members are reporting on their commitments to each other, not to the manager.

      A one-on-one is to sustain a connection between individuals and the manager, develop the individual, a chance to discuss career or HR issues, etc.

  6. Hi Esther,
    great post – thanks!

    I’m agile manager working with 4 agile teams and try to follow ideas of management 3.0. One-on-ones are really beneficial but a challenge too, as you can really undermine self organization a lot by actions you mentioned – I fully agree with your guidance to avoid this conflict.

    What would you suggest as a good schedule for getting together for a one-on-one (or would you not schedule it and do it on demand only)? And if you have a role ScrumMaster in the team and agile manager working with all teams – whom would you suggest doing the one-on-ones?

    Very likely you already wrote a post about it – how do you do one-on-ones in the team among team members (as especially in teams in an early maturity level the feedback isn’t done by default)?

    Sorry for these many questions – but your post initiated it 😉

    Thx a lot,
    Sebastian

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