The unreasonable effectiveness of one-on-ones

When I started dating my partner, I quickly noticed that grad school was making her very sad.

This was shortly after I’d started leading an engineering team at Wave, and so the “obvious” hypothesis to me was that the management (okay, “management”) one gets in graduate school is totally ineffective.

Most graduate students, including Eve, start school right after college, i.e., without much clue about how to effectively do self-directed work. At high-functioning organizations, people try pretty hard to support recent college graduates by teaching them how to prioritize, avoid getting stuck, and generally be effective at things that are more complicated than “do well on the next exam.” In many grad school departments, on the other hand, you’re lucky to meet with your adviser (the only person who nominally cares) more than once a month. Since I also cared, and apparently was more available, I decided to try to help.

Of course, it’s best to have your work support come from someone who also understands your work well enough to provide feedback, and I don’t know anything about aesthetics or philosophy of math. But since nobody who did appeared to be paying enough attention, I offered to have weekly research check-ins with Eve, modeled on Wave’s practice of “one-on-ones.”

One-on-ones are a management tradition at lots of tech companies, perhaps popularized by High Output Management,1 in which a manager regularly schedules time with a direct report to discuss whatever the report wants.

At Wave, I’ve had one-on-ones with my manager since the time I joined, and I found them incredibly useful for helping me improve at work. Different people would spend their one-on-ones on different topics, but for example, mine often included:

Those were all things I felt like would be helpful to Eve, so I was pretty confident that one-on-ones would be at least somewhat helpful for her. In the end, they succeeded far beyond my expectations: Eve thinks our one-on-ones sped up her dissertation by about a year.

Obviously, the things Eve and I talked about weren’t exactly the same as my Wave one-on-ones, though they did share some common themes. Here are some of the things we talked about that Eve thinks made the biggest difference:

In general, Eve summarized our one-on-ones as being a forcing function for her to fully decide on longer-term goals and then focus her work on the best way to achieve those goals, rather than getting too bogged down in whatever was right in front of her.

I learned a few things from this experience.

One is that grad schools are really dysfunctional. If I, a person whose sole qualification is caring a lot, could help Eve speed up her dissertation by ~25%, then her philosophy department is leaving a lot of productivity on the table. But that was last week’s rant.

On the flip side, I also now think the “caring a lot” qualification is way more important than I used to. Lots of people (including Eve) try having “accountability buddies” that they meet with to discuss progress on their goals, and accountability buddies are rarely this effective. The main difference is that most accountability buddies don’t care about each other in the same way that managers/reports, or significant others, do: for me, Eve’s progress was the top idea in my mind in a way that I doubt it was for anyone else. Because of that, I ended up having more insightful feedback for her than a random “accountability buddy” might.

The last thing this helped me realize is that specialists have a lot of non-specialized problems. In one sense, this is so well known it’s become a cliché—the engineer who just wants to crank out code all day, the philosophy professor with their head in the clouds. But the cliché doesn’t really describe me or most engineers or philosophers I know, who are broad-minded enough to be happy thinking about things outside our assigned specialty. Even for us, though, we can often increase our impact a lot by improving our generalized effectiveness.

Thanks to Eve Bigaj for reading a draft of this post and providing the source material.

  1. I couldn’t find much info on how one-on-ones became popular, but High Output Management wrote in the ’80s that “from what I can tell, regularly scheduled one-on-ones are highly unusual outside of Intel,” and they seem pretty common now. ↩︎

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