The weeknotes where I admit 1-1s are actually pretty scary

Hello, weekdiaryarchive, how are you? Are diaries even allowed to have feelings, or do they need to stay absolutely impartial and as deanthropomorphised as possible, for fear of external bias? The electronic note I’m writing this into – is it really as independent as I believe it is?

My name’s Graham and I’m a tech lead. I’m vaguely on Twitter. These are my weeknotes.

Black and white photo of plastic wrapped round a tree

In true Warren Ellis style, I am running around after headless chickens stuck in multi-pies this month. Tomorrow (written on Friday) I turn 40 (in capital numbers) which I don’t really mind at all, and to be honest the numbers don’t mean much to me, but a eurovision is on, it’s a full moon 🎑, and the opportunity to throw a party is just too obvious. So mostly my energy has been focused on playlists-from-the-ages and making shopping lists and watching the semi-finals.

I’ve been making work notes as well over the last few weeks. Here are some things that have been in my brain.

ONE. Continued thoughts on what constitutes “work” as you get more senior

Setting strategy and standing back is a strange game. Directions you set months ago can take a quarter or more to bear fruit. By then, everybody has forgotten the strategy documents and original intentions, which is why it’s so important to remind yourself of them regularly – a side effect of reviewing progress is to keep that narrative and timeline established.

Or is it? That Tao Te Ching phrase persistently comes to mind: In the end, the people say “we did it ourselves!” But perhaps this leaves the door open for a perceived imbalance of power – it’s easy to assume that Delivering is the Value. What would minimum viable management look like?

One day, maybe I’ll write a book on tai chi and leading. But for now, it chimes with the agile notion: Test, but don’t commit. Listen. Adjust. Small amendments to strategy are better than sticking oars in and rowing in a different direction every month.

TWO. Maybe I enjoy 1-1s for the discomfort?

I’ve been catching up with team 1-1s after a couple of months away from them. Mostly due to illnesses and holidays, but maybe I’m just making excuses. Still, the absence throws the experience into a stronger relief when I do get back into the habit. My own emotions stand out more. Which is to say:

  • All the leaders and literature tell you how important it is to do 1-1s on a monthly or weekly basis. Over time, I know this is true and correct.
  • But giving 1-1s is also a really scary experience for a lot of team leads. They often go against day-to-day culture, I think – either because they’re not ‘getting on with work’, or because they can (/should?) delve into more emotional and personal conversations, and things British people really hate talking about.
  • That’s really intense in a face-to-face situation. If you’re reading this and you’re fine giving 1-1s or indeed relish them, that is cool and I look up to that. But OMG, the energy required to fit personal development and wellbeing into organisational structures, strategies, legals, etc can be very draining, mentally and emotionally.
  • It’s fine to run a slightly “duff” 1-1, I think. People are tired, distracted, etc and you can always respond exactly as you’d like. It’s also fine to pick up afterwards and carry on a 1-1 if you need to elaborate a conversation or remark further. There’s no sense in waiting for the next scheduled catch up.
  • Really, maybe, the best advice is to remember that 1-1s are just a chance to BE a person – to get away from the hierarchies of delivery, to forget about specifications and standards for a bit, to allow both yourself and the other team member to just be yourselves for a few brief moments. Ultimately, 1-1s are more important as a space for that, and all the stuff about career progression and achievements and stuff is just a reminder that stuff is all an important part of someone’s life, but not the totality.

So yeah, 1-1s, scary but only because being yourself is scary.

THREE. Roles should be unit tests to each other

We’re continuing some brilliant conversations to clarify our product “ownership” roles, which I mentioned last time. As part of this, I’ve realised how useful it is to have more than one person involved in any single role – we’ve split up a single “Owner” role into a twin “Strategy” and a “Manager”. The conversation to define these, in relation to each other, really highlighted how the two can support each other by checking and reviewing the responsibilities of their counterpart. The Manager can check the strategy for clarity, and the Strategy Lead can approve the Roadmap deliverables. Separation of functions, with cross-checking. (We do this in the dev team a lot, with code review baked into all code that gets released.)

I wish there was a way to write unit tests for this. Test- and Behaviour- Driven Development hint at generally automated / agreed checklists for what emerges and how things progress. I see phpunit versions of Labour’s Brexit tests in my head. Automated organisations are only a decade away – AIs can set the strategy based on the company values provided by shareholders, and the input metrics provided by private SaaS infrastructures.