Imagine yourself as a painter. Specifically oil on canvas. You do landscapes, portraits, abstract art. All the styles. You work at this beautiful craft daily and produce art that gets better with time.

Sounds lovely, right?

Now stretch your imagination and consider a scenario where society doesn’t paintings. Imagine a world where we speak negatively about paintings at every turn with statements like “No one likes paintings” and “I avoid paintings however I can”.

As a painter, I imagine this would be cause for crisis. No one likes paintings? The craft I dedicate myself to? People avoid the work I do?

Such a crisis might make you stop painting altogether. Or scale back the effort, anyway. In fact, I think it would take a tremendous amount of discipline and commitment to continue the work if the craft, in its entirety, was that disliked.

This strange scenario is what I think about every time I read the following from our featured book, High Output Management. Here’s a line from our author, the great Andrew ‘Andy’ S. Grove:

A meeting is nothing less than the medium through which managerial work is performed. That means we should not be fighting their very existence, but rather using the time spent in them as efficiently as possible.

Bad Managers = Bad Meetings

No one likes meetings. I get it. And there is good reason to not like them. But to Andy’s point, meetings are the medium of a manager’s work. So the only way a manager can be effective at their craft is through the quality of their meetings.   

You can’t be a great painter without having great command of the medium. And while a bad paintings are harmless and even humorous, a bad meeting is a certifiable waste of many, many people’s time.

Jason Fried, Founder and CEO at Basecamp, has written a lot about this and his TED talk is a  great place to start understanding his point of view. There are a lot of other TED talks on the topic and a great summary article to study further. There’s also a fine book by Patrick Lencioni that we’ll cover some day.

All of which is to say that the world is well-aware of the problem and offers many ways to fix it. And what’s great about this is that a fix, of any kind, has tremendous upside. In fact, if there was one superpower that a manager must possess in the most universal sense, this is probably it. Yes, as stated in yesterday’s article, you must be a great teacher and coach. You must also be capable of designing and maintaining a terrific work environment. But how does one do those things? Through meetings.

So again, Andy’s idea of “meetings as the medium” is quite important here. Let’s briefly consider how to make them better.

The Anatomy of Meetings

Andy categorizes the meetings he held at Intel as either “process-oriented” or “mission-oriented”. Process-oriented is the most common meeting type and the one that most people consider to be tedious and boring. As Jason Fried points out in many instances, including here, these meetings can be replaced with an equally-effective surrogate: software like Basecamp.  

Before you go there, though, understand the framework of these meetings. On the process-oriented side, Andy points to three core meetings that occur on a regular basis:

At Intel we use three kinds of process-oriented meetings: the one-on-one, the staff meeting, and the operation review.

To make the most useful article possible, I can’t cover all three of these meeting types. Instead, I’ll focus on the one-on-one. It seems obvious enough. A supervisor meets with an employee and they talk about work. And presumably talk about Life. And Living. And if it’s a slow week, they move quickly into gossip and grievances. There is seldom, if ever, an agenda because this is a more “intimate” and “relaxed” setting. There is no ideal state. What is a great one-on-one supposed to look like? And who asked for this meeting anyway? Who is responsible here?

How To Have A Great One-On-One Meeting

I think Andy’s book, written in 1995, might be the first real instance where someone formally lays out a sensible logic for what the one-on-one is supposed to be. He writes:

Its main purpose is mutual teaching and exchange of information. By talking about specific problems and situations, the supervisor teaches the subordinate his skills and know-how, and suggests ways to approach things. At the same time, the subordinate provides the supervisor with detailed information about what he is doing and what he is concerned about.

That sounds right. But what really helps is that Andy formalized a set of tactics to make these meetings, this use of the medium, as effective as possible. This includes the following from our author:

The one-on-one is the subordinate’s meeting. The agenda and tone is set by him.

I love this. It completely reversed my thinking and use of the one-on-one. Before this book, I set the tone of these meetings and had staff come to my office. I always made sure to let them start the meeting with anything on their mind. But it wasn’t their meeting. It was mine. So I always dominated the meeting with what I wanted. And what I wanted typically was different from what they, the subordinate, needed.

Today, I meet staff at their office. Or wherever else they would like to meet. And we go with their agenda. I do usually have something to convey but I wait for the time that suits them. This shift has really helped everyone.

But it comes with renewed expectations and necessary actions. As Andy explains,

[The subordinate] should be asked to prepare an outline, which is very important because it forces him to think through in advance all of the issues and points he plans to raise. Moreover, with an outline, the supervisor knows at the outset what is to be covered and can therefore help to set the pace of the meeting according to the “meatiness” of the items on the agenda.

This is a test. Call it an outline. Call it an agenda. Whatever the title, if there is no document describing the focal points of discussion and desired outcomes, delivered prior to the meeting, there should be no meeting. Conducting an improv session for an hour is not an ideal use of work time.

This requires discipline. This requires time. This requires … less meetings. After all, Andy’s clear standard is centered on a quality-first approach. Also, this is where the supervisor truly does hand over control of the meeting to their subordinate.

My old way of thinking was that I, the supervisor, should craft that agenda. Because it was my meeting. Or it was “our” meeting and, in the instance of shared responsibility, I would carry the load. Which is silly because any meeting that has shared responsibility—“this is our time”—is a meeting devoid of accountability. If it’s everyone’s job, it’s no one’s job.  

So someone must be responsible, must have ownership, and as Andy explains, that person must build the outline. In this case, for the one-on-one, it’s the subordinate.

I struggle with this at times because the outline will often not reflect what I want to discuss. This, of course, is the entire point. It’s not my meeting. So the subordinate’s outline is a defensive move: having them craft it preserves their ownership.

From this outline, the meeting commences. Information is exchanged, lessons imparted, agreements forged, progress made. Hooray. But there is a handful of tactics from our author that I think really helps ensure that the meeting is productive. I’ll offer them in brief summary below:

  1. Assure parties have a copy of the outline and take notes on it. Want to get on the same page? Start by literally sharing copies of the same page. And write on it. The act of writing things down is akin to a commitment.
  2. Use a “hold” file. As important but non-urgent issues arise in the conversation, save them for the next meeting.  
  3. Raise heavy issues at the start. Andy points to an all-too-common issue in one-on-one meetings: the “zinger”. There are times an employee has some deeper concerns but they wait until the very last minute to raise it, giving neither party the time to really unpack the item and thus pushing it into a “hold” file for later conversation. This is not helpful. So it’s critical that everyone feels comfortable, perhaps even required, to put those issues at the forefront of the outline.
  4. Schedule one-on-ones on a rolling basis. I like this a lot. I typically have these as recurring meetings, hard-coded into the schedule every two weeks. That might seem like a good idea. But I’m becoming increasingly suspicious of such meetings. For one, you often miss these meetings when they fall on holidays or vacation. Think about that for a second.

If a meeting is cancelled due to mere coincidence, then it was probably only scheduled by mere coincidence.

For another, anything preprogrammed in this fashion becomes rote. All context is lost and you’re now just going through the motions. Going through the motions of a Tai Chi routine makes a lot of sense. It make zero sense with meetings. This is what has gotten so many managers, myself included, in trouble. You don’t meet to meet. So set these one-on-ones on a rolling basis. You’ll maintain the default interval, I’m sure. Maybe you have one-on-ones every two weeks. Go ahead! Do it until things change. Keep the routine until  there’s so much going on that you decide you need to shake it up and meet sooner (or later) for that circumstance. You get the idea. The meeting schedule becomes more intentional and deliberate and thus more useful when done on a rolling basis.

Or Just Abolish One-On-Ones Altogether

One of the best things that Jason Fried and others have offered us is a third way. To have a meeting or not have a meeting. That used to be the question. Today, tools like Basecamp can help with a whole other approach. Old technologies can help, too. Such as that thing we call a telephone. Maybe the face-to-face isn’t as important. Maybe the whole conversation can be taken care of with a few kilobytes of text. Or, again, a phone call.

Maybe. But just remember the purpose of the one-on-one as our author defines it:

Its main purpose is mutual teaching and exchange of information.

If that’s the destination, the path we take to get there is the strategy. A good strategy probably gets you there in the shortest amount of time with the least amount of drag. That strategy includes a whole host of other tactics like, again, Basecamp. Or Slack. Or email. Memos. Reports. Whatever.

Can those work just as well? I don’t know. An experiment is in order. I’d like to see what happens when we try Grove’s beautiful technique for three months. I’d like to then cancel all one-on-ones for the next three months and switch to these other methods. Other than time, what is gained by not having these meetings? What is lost?   

Does the mutual teaching and exchange of information continue?

It must in some ways. Or else you’d have failure. But if quality is the concern, and you want the exchange to be the very best it can be for the sake of effective teaching and understanding, I feel pretty sure the one-on-ones should resume face-to-face.

I could be wrong, of course. Hence the experiment.

One thing is clear, though: a mediocre meeting is worse than no meeting at all. So the real determining factor in such an experiment is whether or not we, as managers, can really stick to the formula Andy has built. That takes real discipline. The second approach with use of Slack and Basecamp and Trello? I find those to be much easier. Actual meetings require great managers using their medium appropriately.

Can we do that consistently? I’m not sure. But this book and its methods definitely help. If we can’t use this wisdom appropriately, I’ll be the first to welcome a bit more technological disruption.