Welcome to the 3x5 Leadership podcast where we champion intentional leaders who create significant impacts. This show offers simple, practical strategies to help you live, lead, and learn more intentionally.
I’m Josh and in today’s episode, we are exploring the best management practice that I started this past year.
Now, with this being a show focused on leadership, why are we talking about management practices? I know it’s certainly not the sexiest topic we could be covering. No one ever really gets inspired about learning new management techniques.
But managing well is an important habit of intentional leaders. Good management practices help us use our peoples’ time and ability effectively. They enable us to be more efficient so we can do routine things routinely, ultimately allowing us to put effort into bigger and more important things. Good management practices also let us build capacity, for ourselves and for our team, requiring less draining requirements like meetings. As a result, we are able to commit more time and energy to actual work…to important work.
So, I wanted to use today’s episode to look at the best new management practice that I started this past year. This a two-part practice. The first part is a digital platform to track my direct reports’ tasks. The second part is a weekly process to synchronize those tasks with them, which I simply call the weekly one-on-one or O3 meeting.
We will dive into each part in a bit more detail so you can see how you can adopt, and really adapt, these practices for your own use given your unique work conditions and requirements. We will then end by discussing the benefits gained through this practice – benefits for me personally, for my direct reports, and for our team at large.
Now, a little bit of context of my work environment before we start so you can understand my situation. I work in operations, serving as the head operations officer for a 700-person organization. I manage the day-to-day activities, tasks, and training for the organization through a small team of about 20 people. I’ve organized my team so that I have four direct reports, which I use this management practice with. I don’t dictate that my direct reports also use this process with their teams, but I do think it helps provide them structure on how to best manage at their level as well.
Ok, so getting into it, like I said, the first part is a digital platform to track my direct reports’ tasks. My organization uses Microsoft, so I use the OneNote app to maintain a living digital document of each person’s active tasks, projects, and responsibilities. If you’re not familiar with OneNote it is a note-taking app where you can have various digital notebooks for different projects and then multiple pages within each notebook to help organize your content. Keeping it online allows multiple users to have access to and collaborate on the documents as well. So, I’ve organized my OneNote as one notebook for what we call “team tasks” and each direct report has their own page within it. All four direct reports have access to the document so they can view and edit it anytime.
On each person’s page, I’ve created four major sections through a text heading system organized into (1) immediate tasks, (2) short-term projects, (3) mid-term, and finally (4) long-term. Under each heading is a list of the tasks based on their project length or needed immediacy. Each task includes a few common components. First, I list the task or project suspense date. Second, I provide a quick task title to give easy context when they review the tasks. Third, I provide a detailed description of the task, which can include things like requirements, my guidance or expectations, timelines, needed points of contact, and so on. Basically, I provide all the information I have or all the information my direct report would need to be able to start taking action on it. All of this is captured within a single, easy-to-read bullet for each task under the appropriate category heading.
So, that’s the basic structure of my task managing platform, but there are a few important comments on how we use it that provide the biggest benefits. Like I mentioned, my direct reports have access to the digital notebook so they can view the tasks, but we also set up a system where they provide inputs and feedback on it as well. They each chose a text color and use that to add comments to their OneNote page to provide any necessary responses within each task’s bullet. Their input usually just follows my writeup for the task within the bullet, which then becomes a series of responses in specific colors based on who in providing the input. Each comment my direct report provides starts with the date that they are entering the feedback so we can track how recent the last update or input was. Based on the situation or task, I may respond to those comments, so this method then becomes a robust platform for asynchronous dialog about the task as needed.
In how I use the platform, I usually update the OneNote document anywhere between one to three times a week based on what is going on that specific week. If I update existing or add new tasks, I simply add a distinguishable headline to the beginning of the task that states either NEW or UPDATED in big, bold green text. This allows my direct reports to quickly identify changes. And our text color system allows me to quickly see new red or blue text when they provide inputs as well.
This system not only provides a simple and user-friendly hub to keep track of everyone’s current tasks, but it does so on an easily accessible platform. Everyone can access the app via their work computer or cellphone anytime. And this allows us to improve our team synchronization and collaboration without a series of team meetings or huddles throughout the week. They have the necessary guidance consolidated in the app to take initiative and begin moving on their tasks without having to sit and wait to discuss them with me. It also improves our work flexibility, so if one of my people needs to work remotely one day for some reason, there is no change in how we do business. They know where to get guidance, and again, without having to wait on me. This task-managing system has really improved my team’s independence, time flexibility, and adaptability. It’s also significantly reduced our emails and text message communication each week, centralizing most of it to the OneNote app and not through a series of emails that we each need to keep track of or go back and find in our inbox.
So, if you’re interested in trying out this part of the management practice, I encourage you to first determine the app or platform to use. We are a Microsoft based organization, so OneNote was already available to us at no extra cost. Other common apps like Google Keep, Trello, and Evernote can do the same thing for your team and probably at no cost. Just figure out what will work best in terms of team accessibility and ease of use. Then talk to your team about this new method and be deliberate in introducing it to them. It took us a good few weeks of practicing it to make it routine and seamless, so be patient as you get it going. And I recommend you start by introducing this part of the management practice before you move into the weekly one-on-one. But once you’re ready, I absolutely encourage you to add this second part, which is a weekly O3.
Ok so, the weekly O3 is a 30-minute synch meeting that, as the name suggests, occurs every week. I have one O3 for each of my direct reports, which in my current case, means four meetings a week for two total hours. That might initially seem like a hefty time consumption in your schedule, but I assure you that these two hours every week open up a significant amount of my and their time each week by eliminating other meetings and unscheduled huddles or office calls.
We have our O3s scheduled to occur on the same day and at the same time every week to make them essential foundations of our weekly rhythm. I structure my O3s off the model that Mark Horstman offers in his book, The Effective Manager, with one simple adjustment. And that is that the task synchronization discussions are centered around our active OneNote list. But if you’re interested in reading more about this one-on-one model, I highly encourage you to check out that book, The Effective Manager. So, each 30-minute meeting is broken down into three 10-minute sections.
The first 10 minutes are dedicated for my direct report to share anything they want about what is currently on their task list. It can be updates, recent developments or obstacles, challenges, or introducing areas where they may need support. To ensure the meeting lasts 30 minutes and that this section only 10, my direct reports know to come to the meeting prepared with what they want to discuss. It just makes the meeting much more productive.
Then, the second 10-minutes are for me to provide my updates. This can include things like expanding on my guidance regarding new tasks, giving updates to current ones, and so on. I also like to use this time to provide perspective on any of the tasks as necessary. My direct reports may not have the context for some tasks like I do, so I like to use this opportunity to provide the “why” or help them better understand the bigger picture.
Based on some recent mentorship, there are two key points I’ve recently added to this section of the meeting, which are two simple questions. One is that I ask my direct report “what else is on your mind or taking your time that is not currently on our OneNote that I should be aware of?” And the second question is “are there other tasks or projects currently on your plate that were not assigned by me?” These help me get a good pulse on their current workload, understand their capacity, and ensure I remain informed on where they are committing their efforts.
The final 10-minutes of the O3 is, in my mind, the most important part of the meeting. This is 10-minutes dedicated to a focused and intentional developmental conversation. I get frustrated over how hard it is to have intentional developmental conversations during the course of any working day. I know we get busy through days and weeks, but then it can become weeks or even months before we realize we haven’t done anything within the team outside of mere routine task management. So, I want to know that I can at least engage in 10-minutes each week if nothing else.
Now, what kind of developmental conversations do we engage in during these windows? I’ve structured mine to adjust the flavor of each developmental conversation week-to-week between coaching towards a goal, feedback conversations, and career development.
Two of every three weeks or so are dedicated to coaching through a developmental goal. Over a series of one-on-ones, I’ll work with my direct report to determine a developmental goal of theirs, turn it into a SMART goal, and then coach them through their growth in that area. We could do an entire episode on just what that process looks like, but broadly we do things like research available content related to that goal so we can get ideas on strategies and tools to put into practice. We define a strategy to begin working on new habits and then discuss how those new behaviors are working over time. We also reflect and assess how we are making progress on the goal to be honest with ourselves and also determine if we need to make adjustments as necessary.
So, I’ll coach my direct reports through a developmental goal about two or three times every month as I said. For the other weeks, I use those developmental 10 minutes for a feedback conversation. I have my direct report come to the meeting prepared to give me feedback on my behaviors and performance, and I do the same for them. Then, we commit to a candor-filled, truth-in-love conversation with each other. I have found that this practice of engaging in feedback during an O3 every few weeks offers two really important benefits for us. First, this practice normalizes sharing feedback so it is not so novel and scary. It becomes a regular practice to how we do business, which improves our mutual accountability, performance, and professionalism. Second, making it regular like this allows us to engage in more detailed discussions about behavior. Think about the norm most of us experience where we likely don’t get feedback outside of a quarterly or annual performance review. That’s a lot of things to have to provide feedback on when covering such a large time window. However, if we share feedback more regularly, every few weeks or even more, we can get specific about behavior and performance we are addressing. As the leader for example, I can ask my direct reports to provide their perspectives on specific management practices or ways I engage my team.
Ok, so the developmental conversation portion of our O3s are generally broken down to a 2:1 ratio coaching to feedback. Beyond those two types of developmental conversations, I also insert a career management conversation every quarter or so. This is just an opportunity to talk about their career goals, progression, and what we can do together to help them reach desired or required career development gates.
Lastly, a few quick notes about O3s. First is that it is important to have them scheduled and on your, and their, calendar. There might be a week here and there where you can’t hold your O3. And that’s ok. What’s important is that it’s scheduled. If you need to, you can shift the meeting that week. Or if absolutely necessary, you can cancel it. A missed week won’t be fatal. But ensure the O3s remain scheduled, and you go into each week with the expectation that they will occur.
Additionally, at the end of each O3, ensure you clarify what type of developmental conversation you intend to (or need to) engage in next week. This affords your direct reports to have predictability for next week and let’s them prepare for it. So, for example, if you state that next week will be a feedback conversation, not only does your direct report have the week to prepare their thoughts, but you can shape what kind of feedback you’re looking for. You can ask, “next week, can you focus your feedback for me on my management techniques for our team, or how I engage with the rest of our team outside of you four direct reports, or how I facilitate our weekly staff meetings?” With this approach, we are able to have much more productive and impactful feedback conversation.
Alright, that is the simple breakdown of what I’d consider to be my most impactful management practice that I’ve adopted this past year. At it’s core, it’s nothing more than a digital platform to keep track of my direct reports’ tasks and an easy way to synchronize those tasks each week.
And so to end today’s discussion about this practice, I want to share three key benefits that my team and I enjoy as a result of it. First is that our team is much more organized and synchronized. I don’t have to maintain some one or two hour long group synch meeting where I’m pulling people away from their work to sit around a table each sharing our updates. I also rarely if ever have to pull my direct reports into my office for an unscheduled, ad hoc huddle to get updates. I can simply refer to our OneNote instead. We also have constant access to our tasks’ information, rather than centralizing them on a whiteboard or some other analog list where people have to physically go into the office to see. We are also not managing through a series of dozens or even hundreds of emails each week.
The second benefit is improved capacity for individuals and our team. By capacity, I mean time, energy, and attention. Less meetings, fewer emails, and reduced requirements to get my team physically together in time and space means more capacity for us to focus on our actual work. And with that added capacity, we can also move out of the simple day-to-day management of routine things and into the realm of important things. Things like leading organizational change efforts to improve our people and how we do business. We can engage more intentionally and regularly into developing our people. This capacity also affords flexibility. If family events, work travel, or other requirements pull us away from what we would consider to be our normal work hours for a day or week, our methods still endure, enabling everyone to work when they are able to or choose to. And the team is never waiting on me to provide guidance.
The last benefit is the assurance that we are engaging in intentional developmental activities every week. I might not be able to get my people involved in nearly as many developmental events like conferences, courses, or developmentally educational events as I’d like. But with O3s, I do know that I can guarantee a quality 10-minute conversation every week. And, in my mind, the benefits they and I gain from those routine conversations over a year might in fact be more impactful for our growth than any conference or course could provide.
So, I hope today’s episode sparked an idea and generated some energy on new approaches to how you manage your team. I encourage you to consider how you might be able to adapt and apply this management practice with your team. It might look a little different for your specific work context and that’s ok. But I think you’ll find that your team is enjoying the same benefits as mine is, ultimately leading to a more effective, productive, professional, and engaged team.
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Thanks for joining us today. And thanks for your continued support and leadership.
Again, I’m Josh, and until next time, friends, take care and lead well.