One-on-Ones in Agile (Transitions)

Have you ever had regular One-on-Ones (“O3s”)? If not, I think you’re missing out. Mark Horstman and Mike Auzenne describe them as:

  • 30 minute conversation every (other) week
  • Between a manager and one of her team members. (Each team member gets their own O3 each week.)
  • Default time division: 10 minutes team members topics, 10 minutes managers topics, 10 minutes for coaching or mentoring

Now that I finally experienced O3s, I agree with Mark and Mike that they are the “single most effective management tool“.

Here’s what I think is awesome about O3s for the team member:

  • It’s a very close feedback loop – You always know whether what you’re doing contributes to the company’s overarching goal
    • Which for me goes hand in hand with “Having Purpose”
  • Validation – You are important enough for your boss to take time to listen to you
  • Guaranteed sync point – You don’t have to disturb your boss because you know there’s a time to tackle all non-urgent issues in the O3

As the manager you can:

  • Influence – Give feedback
  • Build trust – O3s give you enough time to truly connect to your counterpart
  • Coach and grow your team members

I love O3s in both roles, manager and team member. I think they are a great way to influence people. One example where you need all the influence you can get is during an agile transition. But I hardly ever hear about O3s within the context of agile transitions… Curious!

Over the last months I’ve developed a theory about why O3s are uncommon in Agile. Probably several factors come together:

  1. Traditional management models emphasize the individual: Tasks for individuals, individual performance reviews, individual bonuses and so on. Agile emphasizes teams and collaboration. It also emphasizes feedback loops, but it’s usually feedback for the whole team as they are “in it together”.
  2. One of the underlying beliefs of the agile community is that the environment determines 95% of an individual’s performance and only 5% are actually up to the employee. I wonder if the agile movement is currently overcompensating for management models past. I once subscribed to the “It’s the system, stupid”-tenet, but lately I’m not so sure. Yes, the system plays a huge role, but I’ve also seen poor performance independent of environment.
  3. There’s a faction in the agile community that is highly skeptical of hierarchies and managers. They seem to think that management is inherently bad. I disagree with that faction. A good manager a) connects their team members to the company and b) looks out for their well-being and growth. See also Google’s take on middle managers’ contribution.

I’m convinced additional O3s would be super-helpful, at least when starting with Scrum and probably other methods, too. Think about it: An agile or lean transition means a lot of new concepts that often fly in the face of people’s old concepts. I think it’s a lot easier to address concerns individually in O3s. Plus you avoid groupthink.

Pierluigi Pugliese’s experience when building teams seems to support this. He writes:

… so I started to apply more and more one-to-one coaching techniques as they are targeting directly a change in an individual instead of “averaging” the intervention through a group process.

To my surprise the teams started to grow an effective teamwork quicker than I’ve seen in the past. So I tried even more with other teams… and it kept becoming faster!

He ascribes this to:

… in a one-to-one setting there is a much bigger “arsenal” of tools that can be used, tools that enable change at a much deeper level than what is achievable in a group setting, especially when somebody in the group does not want/like/accept to work.

Although I’ve never done regular O3s as a Scrum Master, I came in really early / stayed real late to catch people alone, when I wanted to change team dynamics. This sometimes helped where preceding retrospectives hadn’t.

What do you think? Have you ever done One-On-Ones during a transition or even afterwards? In which role for which other role? Do you think it might conflict with self-organization?