When I started writing this column a couple of years ago, I never promised to have all the answers. (Judging from the comments I receive each week, many of you heartily agree with that proposition.) Occasionally, I’ll bring up a topic to get your suggestions rather than express my opinion.

That’s what I want to do with this column. I’m talking about one-on-ones, the regularly scheduled, individual meetings that IT managers have with their direct reports. Frankly, I go back and forth on the utility of these meetings. Some weeks, they seem like a very useful way to stay in touch with the tactical concerns of your people. Other weeks, they seem like a colossal waste of time. Let’s look at the issue, and then you can give me your take.

The unexamined pervasiveness of one-on-ones
I became interested in the subject of one-on-ones for a couple of reasons. The first is that the darned things are everywhere. As even a cursory glance at a list of popular business books shows, there’s no shortage of management trends and fads: Some companies are still focused on creating ad hoc teams to manage projects across disciplines; others are still flattening their organizational structures; while still others are trying to decide what “the rules” are—so they can break them!

No matter what book the CIO buys for the senior management team or what hot motivational speaker the CEO books for all managers to hear, it seems that just about every organization uses one-on-ones.

And yet, I can’t recall seeing much in management books of any stripe about these kinds of meetings: when and how to schedule them, or how to determine success and measure results. It’s as if, as managers, we intuitively believe that such meetings are beneficial, but we can’t articulate why.

The second reason I became interested in one-on-ones is my own experience. I’m ambivalent about one-on-ones as a management technique. I’ve had real success with them. On the other hand, I’ve wasted a lot of time in nonproductive individual meetings—on both sides of the manager-subordinate table.

Tentative thoughts (and real questions) about how to make one-on-ones work
Having thought about this subject for a while, I’d like to give you my ideas for making one-on-ones successful for you and your team. At the same time, I want to ask you some questions, because my record with one-on-ones is far from perfect.

How important is the manager’s commitment of time?
My boss has a weekly meeting scheduled with me, and I really look forward to it. Thinking about it, however, I’ve decided that the reason the meeting works is not that we do anything special, but because my boss is just so busy that this is the one hour per week that I know I’ll have his undivided attention.

What’s the right frequency?
With my direct reports, I try to schedule weekly one-on-ones. Right now, that’s four hours a week for such meetings. Weekly meetings seem right to me, but mostly because I haven’t had much luck in making biweekly meetings actually happen on a regular basis. It’s as if you need the repetition of a weekly meeting to make it useful. I’ve talked to folks who have monthly one-on-ones, but that’s probably a little long between meetings. With a monthly one-on-one, you’re spending most of your time reviewing the events of the last 30 days rather than getting your hands on the pulse of what’s going on now. Further, the tenor of the meeting changes from determining how to help your subordinate to judging his or her recent performance.

What is the scope of a one-on-one?
As we discussed above, the scope of a one-on-one is partly determined by its frequency. If you’re scheduling weekly one-on-ones, focus on three major points: communication of new information, project updates, and assisting your subordinate.

Should you have a regular agenda?
Again, for a weekly meeting, an agenda isn’t critical. On the other hand, you need to have something to discuss, or your subordinate will believe you’re wasting his or her time. I try to start my one-on-ones with my direct reports this way: “Today, I want to talk about x, y, and z. What do you want to talk about?”

If you schedule it, do it
If you’re like me, when your schedule gets tight, you’re more likely to cancel a standing meeting like a weekly one-on-one than an ad hoc meeting to discuss a particular project or problem. While the tendency is understandable, fight the temptation. Otherwise, you send a bad message to your direct reports.

It’s OK if you don’t want to have the meeting, so long as you do so
Not everything you do as an IT manager is pleasant. There are times when the last thing in the world you want to do is deal with a particular employee. Perhaps he or she is troublesome, or whining, or just unhappy. It’s OK to dread the meeting, but the very fact that you don’t want to have the meeting is a sign that you need to have that meeting.

As I said at the beginning, I sure don’t have all the answers when it comes to making one-on-ones work. Post a comment to this column and let me know about your experiences with one-on-ones, pro and con. By sharing our experiences, we might find some answers.

From the IT Leadership Web log

I first started writing about one-on-ones on TechRepublic’s new blog for technical managers and their bosses. It’s called IT Leadership. Check it out today. It’s free.