Applying design thinking principles for effective and efficient one-on-one meetings
The front line between you and your manager is your weekly one-on-one. It’s the meeting to connect on project work, review updates, and share what you’re focusing on. This meeting will fall into a status quo. Not by desire or intention, it’s human nature to get comfortable doing things the same way. As a manager, my status quo question is, “What’s on your mind?” It’s a decent question, but not always the best use of your time. As an employee, you want to get the most value out of the time with your manager.
I’ll share a simple tool to create effective and efficient one-on-ones. I’ve developed this tool from the methods I use as an experience designer and design thinking facilitator. Design Thinking projects start with organizing (messy) information, taking into consideration all roles, viewpoints, and systems to discover otherwise hidden insights and efficiencies. Before we dive into the details, a little more context is needed. After all, one can use a butter knife as a screwdriver — effective yes, efficient no.
As a manager, some expectations I have are: this meeting is for you to drive, for you to design, and for you to ask for what you need. My job is to provide context, direction, insight, and remove roadblocks. It isn’t for me to tell you exactly what to do or how to do the job at hand. Managing up is a crucial skill — my go-to article for this is HBRs’ on Managing your Boss, it’s worth the read.
Let’s begin with this assertion — Each manager has their own processes, areas of focus, and communication styles. Accept it, and don’t waste your time trying to change them. This tool is about changing how you engage with them. You, on average, get 20-ish minutes a week with your manager. Why not design it to get the most value out of it!
Over the years, I have iterated on my one-on-one to design an effective and efficient tool, and three insights have emerged — Keep it simple, transparent, and flexible.
Simple: Craft it to be a part of your weekly routine, something that doesn’t need more than 5–10 minutes to do.
Transparent: Your manager isn’t any different than you and is also switching contexts and juggling projects. A shared living document will provide a clear focus.
Flexible: Not every meeting needs to cover the same things, and every manager wants different information.
Ready for the tool?
- It’s a shared living document
- Updated and shared prior to each meeting
- With topics divided into three consistent themes — FYI, Input needed, and Decision needed
Yup, it’s as simple as that.
Let’s break it down.
The shared living document. Applying the principle — Recollection over Recall. Studies show us that it’s easier (for humans) to recognize and remember things we have previously experienced (in this case seen) then it is to recall something from memory. The shared document does two things, one it cancels out any recency bias, and two becomes a week-over-week tracking tool painting the full picture of your progress, growth, and outcomes.
Shared prior to the meeting. Context shifting and back-to-back meetings are not a manager’s friend. By sharing what you want to cover in your meeting beforehand (recommended 24 hours before) will allow both of you to zero in on the highest priority items to cover. Personally, this has been crazy valuable to build my managing-up skills as I’m forced each week to stop and reflect on what information I need to share and where more context may be required. After all, a laundry list of completed activities doesn’t paint a picture of how work is progressing or your outcomes.
Consistent themes. This theme has two principles. The first is Consistency, which is a trust builder. Think about it; you trust the door will open because it opens every time (yes, until it doesn’t, and you no longer trust that door). The second is Chunked Information. We know that information grouped into themes is (more) easily understood (and recalled) then a long list of this-and-that. The themes need to be flexible to accommodate your manager’s needs — remember, each manager will want different information. By consistently organizing information into these three themes will lower the number of random fly-by questions. And — bonus, you have an organized place to capture and track topics throughout the week.
Now let’s talk about the FYI, Input needed, and Decision needed themes. These themes have proven to be flexible, effective, and efficient to meet the needs of any manager. And they become supercharged when combined with the user experience principle of Framing, which is the idea that how information is organized and shared can alter our judgment and affect decisions. As an example, if you only talk about the projects that are on fire or conversely completed activities, it will affect how your manager makes decisions. These themes force you to classify information that will focus both of you.
Theme 1 — The FYI. This section is for items you think your manager needs to be aware of as a leader. I have yet to find a manager who loves surprises at work (yes, even good surprises). This section isn’t a laundry list of everything completed since the last meeting; it’s the key things they need to know. The pre-read gives you the ability to share information beforehand, so during the meeting, it’s not the focus, leaving time to discuss higher value items. Trust that your manager will ask if they have questions in the FYI section. As an outcome, you may notice less, “What’s the status of XYZ” questions.
Theme 2 — Input needed. This section is for items you know your manager has opinions about how to progress, stalled items, or you may be unsure what the next step is. This is the art of managing-up, you (as the direct report) are building confidence and trust for your manager that you got this, done collaboratively and transparently. You’ll likely spend most of your time discussing information in this section — dissecting issues, defining the next steps, and aligning on expectations. As an outcome, you may notice that you’re no longer getting asked, “Tell me more about XYZ?”
Theme 3 — Decision needed. This last section is for items that are genuinely blocked. There is no passing go and no $200. Managers (try as we might) aren’t always as clear as we want to be, and if you are stuck, a list of exactly where you are blocked is invaluable. And it also becomes a place you can monitor and self-assess if you are growing your leadership how you want. I’ve often taken items from this section to give them a second think by asking myself, “If I was leading, what would I do?” And sometimes, that item moves up into the input needed section.
It’s as simple as that!
Try it for a month. As with any change, the first meeting could be awesome or not. You’re breaking a status quo, and groundbreaking change won’t happen right out of the gate. You’ll need to use the framework consistently a few times to see changes. Remember, this meeting is the front-line between you and your manager — treat it as such.
To get you started, here is an outline you can use. Or make a copy of my google template
Weekly one-on-one; Name & Name
Table of contents
- Most recent Date: Headline on how things are going or how your feeling
- Date: Headline on how things are going or how your feeling
Most recent Date: Headline on how things are going or how your feeling
Theme 1: FYI
- Items your manager needs to be aware of
- EX: Project X delivered to product partners for PI16
Theme 2: Input needed
- Items you want or need their input on
- EX: Q2 Project planning is next week, are there any changes to be aware of?
Theme 3: Decision needed
- Items where you are blocked
- EX: Waiting on approval for the research study. Project is set to start next month