Crafting purposeful 1:1s

Jul 21, 2023

Picture this: I sat across from my ex-boss during a routine 1:1 session, expecting mundane discussions about project status. But instead, she began by asking about my passions, goals, and aspirations I held for my design career. Suddenly, my curiosity was piqued, and I realized there was untapped potential in these meetings—a chance to unlock hidden opportunities and ignite my growth as an individual contributor.

The goal of an effective 1:1 isn’t to give an update or get instructions from your manager. It’s a conversation. If you’re using one-on-ones only to share project updates with your manager, you’re doing it wrong. There are many systems to share updates (Slack, project management software, Google Docs, Wikis)—1:1s aren’t one of them.

1:1s are a chance to talk to your manager about you—your ideas for the product, career goals, and ambitions, interests, and self-reflection.

When done well, a 1:1 can help with

  1. Alignment and clarity: Meaningful discussions help align goals, priorities, and expectations, ensuring everyone works towards a shared vision.

  2. Trust and rapport: Open communication builds trust, creating a safe space for sharing your concerns, seeking feedback, and discussing professional growth.

  3. Career development: These meetings provide opportunities to discuss your aspirations, seek guidance, and explore growth paths within the organization.

  4. Constructive feedback loops: Establishing a feedback-rich culture enables continuous improvement, refining approaches, and delivering higher-quality work.

  5. Empowered decision-making: Collaborative discussions provide insights, perspectives, and resources, empowering well-informed decisions.

Practical Tips for Effective 1:1s

Have a clear purpose & agenda

Prepare in advance and clarify the agenda for each meeting. Review your immediate priorities and reflect on the broader context of your work. This helps you make the most out of your one-on-one discussions. I have an evergreen doc I fill out during the week that I have ready before my 1:1 with my manager.

Be intentional

Prepare a list of topics or questions you want to discuss, such as goals, priorities, expectations, outcomes, roadblocks, or feedback. Setting intentions and being proactive fosters positive and productive working relationships. I intentionally set my 1:1s to 30 mins to be efficient with our time and as a forcing function for me to plan ahead. From my experience, this has given me enough time to dive deep into 1-2 topics or cover 3-4 topics.

Open communication

Ask questions or support on what your manager can help you with. Your manager views things differently and can share new ideas and perspectives. Listen to your manager’s goals and preferences, and encourage open communication during the meetings.

Themes you could discuss

  • Short-term goals: Things to be done in the current quarter, month, or week. They’re high-level projects assigned to you. Talk about project progress, identifying any obstacles hindering progress, and how your manager can help unblock you.

  • Long-term goals: Things your manager can help you with to become who you want to be. Everyone grows differently, and people are happiest when they feel they’re progressing on their big life goals. Discuss your long-term career aspirations, review progress, identify areas of improvement, and explore growth opportunities.

  • Company improvement: Proactively looking at ways to improve the company, culture, or process is a great way to look at things that are below par critically but also help you reframe what you care about and what your manager can help with.

  • Self-improvement: A culture of learning and self-improvement starts at 1:1 meetings to help you understand what you can do differently. An added benefit is that it’s discussed privately and when on top of mind for your manager, giving you ample time to make changes and not wait until a performance review.

  • Manager improvement: Assuming you’ve built trust and rapport with your manager, you should be able to discuss and share feedback with them on what they can do more or less to help you.

  • Personal life: Some of my favorite conversations with my managers have been getting to know them outside of the office. It’s natural to have ups and downs, so sharing things that might affect you at work is essential. Honest communication with your manager can help them support you and take time off, even during stressful work situations. An important thing to know is that your manager is not your therapist but can lend an empathetic ear.

  • Team relationships: You spend 8+ hours a day working with team members. Sharing with your manager about whom you enjoy or have difficulty working with, who you admire, and what things you’d like to change are big opportunity areas for improvement that your manager is positioned to improve.

  • Work habits: The more you can share about your work habits, the better it is for your manager to support you, which eventually helps you become more productive. I’ve shared things like when I have the most energy when I prefer meetings vs. focus hours, and my ideal work day with new managers that have helped me tenfold.

Follow up on action items

There’s nothing worse than discussing things and losing action items into the infamous void. After the one-on-one, follow up on any action items or decisions made during the meeting. This could be as simple as sending a summary email or Slack note, setting reminders, and allocating time to focus on action items before the next session.

Consistency is key

Schedule regular one-on-one meetings, whether weekly or biweekly, with your manager to ensure effective communication and maintain strong working relationships. Do your best to keep them at the same time every week and avoid canceling or rescheduling them except if you’re away on holiday.

Addressing Potential Challenges

Acknowledging that not all one-on-one meetings may go smoothly or achieve the desired outcomes is essential. Here are a few potential challenges and strategies to overcome them:

Communication barriers

If you struggle to communicate effectively due to language or cultural differences, it’s vital to prioritize clarity in your interactions. One of my colleagues, Jack, was working on a project with a team from a different country. Despite his efforts to communicate clearly, he struggled to understand their perspective and vice versa. To overcome this challenge, Jack used visual aids and collaborative tools like diagrams and video calls to enhance understanding. This approach helped him to bridge the communication gap and complete the project.

Power dynamics

Maintaining a sense of balance in the workplace is essential, especially regarding power dynamics between you and your manager. This is especially true in hierarchical cultures more than in Egalitarian ones. Sarah, one of my friends, felt intimidated by her manager, who had a dominant personality and often overshadowed her ideas. To overcome this challenge, Sarah proactively expressed her thoughts, ideas, and concerns to her manager, focusing on building a trusting relationship based on mutual respect. With time, her manager began to appreciate Sarah’s contributions and involved her more in decision-making.

Conflicting priorities

When priorities clash between you and your manager, have an open and honest conversation to find common ground and explore alternative solutions. John, one of my colleagues, found himself at odds with his manager, who had different priorities for a project they were working on. To overcome this challenge, John openly and honestly conversed with his manager to find common ground and explore alternative solutions. Through this discussion, they identified a compromise that met their needs and enabled them to complete the project successfully.

The path forward

As product designers, we need to think outside the canvas (no pun intended) because career growth happens through honest conversation, alignment, and intentional collaboration.

We should utilize practical tips, address challenges, and foster dynamic exchanges with managers and peers to maximize these interactions. This will propel our professional development and career forward, unlocking our true potential.