One on Ones with the Awesome List

Phil Hollenback

The Problem

Say you're a people manager. That means you are doing weekly 1-1 meetings with each of your employees, right? If you aren't doing that, you should be - it's the best way to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

Now you're in a conference room one on one, two people for a minimum of twenty minutes every week (hopefully thirty minutes at least). What do you talk about? This is particularly confusing for the newly-minted manager. The last thing you want is for the weekly 1-1s to be a source of stress for everyone involved.

The Solution

The solution to this awkwardness is a simple meeting agenda. Basically you just need to bring a little structure to the process and prime the discussion pump. Here's how it works: give your employees a simple template for them to fill out every week. Ask them to submit it via email no later than 24 hours before your scheduled 1-1 meeting. Then, when you go in to that meeting, you've already got an agenda to work from.

In my team we call this the 'Awesome List'. I was lucky to have a really great manager when I started working on the team as an individual contributor a few years back. She introduced me to the agenda idea, which was then called the '1-1 worksheet'. When I took over the group a few months back one of my employees mentioned that a 'worksheet' sounded too much like a school assignment. That's why I changed the name to Awesome List. Because really, who doesn't want to fill out their awesome list every week? It's a chance to be awesome!

The Format

The key point about the awesome list is it's super simple and as low-overhead as possible. It should just be straight text that you can paste in to an email with a minimum of fuss. Here's a good starting point:

From: Awesome Team Member <[email protected]>
To: Awesome Manager <[email protected]>
Subject: Phil's Awesome List 2/5/12

Things I Did Last Week:

Kept things awesome
Reduced outages
Met with developers about project X

Things I Plan on Doing This Week:

Develop a metric to track awesomeness
Meet with Bob the developer about Feature Z
Finish project docs on the twiki

Items To Discuss:

I'm taking vacation the week of March 3
Concerned about of lack of communication with QA
Improving process to order new servers

Seriously, that's all there is too it. Don't over think this thing.

Using the Awesome List

If you are a manager, give all your employees a sample awesome list. Ask them to please submit their weekly awesome lists the day before your 1-1 meetings. Then, use it as the agenda for your meeting.

If you are an individual contributor and you don't currently use an agenda for your 1-1s with your manager, write up an awesome list for your next meeting and mail it to your manager. Ask if you can use it every week, and encourage your manager to adopt it uniformly.

It's important to note that the Awesome List can also be used as a stand-in in case you can't meet some particular week. I encourage my team members to submit it every week, whether we are meeting or not. That way I can respond via email to any urgent problems or things I need clarification on.

Small Steps

The thing I really like about the Awesome List (other than the name of course) is the simplicity. It's the simplest possible agenda you can come up with for your 1-1 meetings. At the same time, it provides enough structure to keep the meetings flowing and not leave anyone sitting there feeling uncomfortable. Particularly for new people managers this helps tremendously.

I also like the fact that it gives you a passive way as an employee to ensure your concerns are heard. Some times you will have uncomfortable or unpleasant things to discuss with your manager. It's all too easy to think to yourself, "oh, I'll bring that up next week".

However, it's much easier to slot a reminder about the issue on your Awesome List. Then, when you are in the meeting with your manager it's out of your control, you have to talk about it. Used correctly this can be really useful and takes the pressure off everyone.

That's It

So that's all I have to say about the Awesome List. I encourage all of you to use it for your 1-1 meetings. If you aren't having 1-1s, start now and use the Awesome List. It will really help make communication flow and ensure nobody is left frustrated.


@ohlol reminded me about The Rands Test. In that post, @rands brings up the excellent point that the 1-1 meeting should not be completely driven by day-to-day status updates. Instead, those status updates should serve as a jumping-off point for a larger discussion.

That's actually how I use the Awesome List but I didn't make that completely clear in the original version of this article. I agree that 1-1 meetings shouldn't be just about status updates. Thus when you have your meeting, make sure you don't get bogged down in the minutiae. Make sure to expand the discussion from the tactical to the strategic.




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