One-Minute Management and Project Teams


Managing expectations and providing useful feedback are incredibly important skills for managers, whether you’re dealing with one employee or many. In this article, Laura Brandenburg takes a closer look at how some of the principles from the book The One Minute Manager apply to project teams.

In The One Minute Manager, authors Ken Blancard and Spencer Johnson share a story of a young man on a quest for the world’s most effective management method. It seems that all managers either focus on results to the detriment of people or on people to the detriment of results, but the young man seeks the secret of effective managers who “manage themselves and the people they work with so that both the organization and the people profit from their presence.” He finally learns of a manager who believes that “people who feel good about themselves produce good results.” The manager shares three principles of effective “one-minute management” with the young man: One-minute Goal Setting, which is about setting clear expectations; One-minute Praising, which is about catching someone doing something right, especially at the beginning of a new task; and One-minute Reprimands, which involve giving direct and immediate feedback on wrong behavior without devaluing the person.

In this article, I’ll share a bit more about each principle and discuss how we might apply each within the context of a project team. There are certain limitations, since the principles are written from the perspective of a manager-employee relationship and project teams are often much more complex. But, the principles are still applicable if we explore the root reasons for why they work.

One-minute Goal Setting
The One Minute Manager contends that most poor performance results from the manager and employee working from different scorecards. The first principle, One-minute Goal Setting, involves writing clearly, in 250 words or less, what expected behavior looks like. Setting the goal might take more than a minute, but it should be easily readable in a minute or less. We don’t throw these written goals in a drawer. Employees read them often to judge whether their behavior matches the goals. Goal setting works because people with clear expectations are motivated to act in accordance with them. And, because the goals are short, they are easy to revisit often.

In the context of a project team, requirements—and especially user stories—are examples of One-minute Goal Setting. While on a project, there is often a complex set of stakeholders from whom to gain agreement on expectations. Clarity in requirements ensures that everyone is working from the same scorecard, and brevity ensures that the requirements are easy to refer back to often and don’t just get shoved into a drawer. Is there room to improve our practices so that you organize your requirements such that you can use them like one-minute goals?

Similarly, when forming a project team, how many conflicts could we resolve by clearly assigning roles and responsibilities and reaching agreement amongst all members? Could we benefit from everyone on the project team’s having a sixty-second description of exactly what his or her role is on the project, sharing these publicly at project initiation, and referring to them throughout the project? While most companies I’ve worked at had job descriptions, rarely did we take the small amount of time required to customize those job descriptions and make them specific to each project.

One-minute Praising
The second principle, One-minute Praising, occurs when the manager catches an employee doing something right, especially when that employee first starts a new role or takes on a new responsibility. A one-minute praise is specific and involves sharing how you feel about what the employee did right and how it helps the organization. Praising works because it reinforces what expected behavior looks like. Early on, it’s especially important to praise behavior that is less than perfect but is closer to expected than before. Over time, with consistent feedback, employees learn to do their own praising and become self-motivated to perform well.

While we typically think of feedback as a managerial role, it doesn’t have to be, especially when the feedback is positive. On project teams, we can use this tool to improve how well we work together. Have you ever given positive feedback to business stakeholders when they help you discover requirements, prioritize project issues, or participate in planning? It can do wonders to help build morale on your team and encourage similar, productive behavior in the future.

Perhaps we should also consider how we report on projects. Typically, reports focus on what’s wrong—defects and missed deadlines. Would it be possible to shift the reporting perspective to focus on what’s right and what the team is doing well?

Finally, on project teams we tend to reward exceptionally good behavior. We applaud the person who goes above and beyond to solve a critical issue or works over the weekend to meet a deadline. Is this really the only behavior worth praising? When we take on new roles on a project, we need to know when we are even close to getting it right. More liberal thinking about when to praise our colleagues could help us build better teams, getting us more quickly past the “norming” phase and into the “performing” phase.

One-minute Reprimands
The third principle, One-minute Reprimands, involves providing specific, immediate feedback about wrong behavior, sharing how you feel about it and the impact it had, and then reinforcing the value of the person. When an inexperienced person doesn’t perform, The One-minute Manager notes, you first go back to goal setting to make sure that person understands what is expected and what good performance looks like. But, when an experienced person fails to perform, the One-minute Reprimand works because it is immediate (reprimands are not piled up until performance review time) and specific to one behavior, not to the person. The follow-up praising is important, because it reinforces that while the behavior is not OK, the person is.

How often do we do this on project teams? Typically, not often enough. Instead of giving negative feedback throughout the project, we tend to set up processes that prevent negative situations. Consider the scenario where a stakeholder provides a last-minute change to the requirements with no justifiable reason except for laziness or forgetfulness. Most project teams have processes in place to protect them from this situation. What if, instead, a leader on the team gave the stakeholder specific feedback outlining why this behavior is unacceptable and the impact it has on specific individuals? How likely would the person be to review the requirements more carefully next time? This goes both ways. As a project team, we could also benefit greatly from experiencing our stakeholders’ pain when we miss deadlines, misunderstand requirements, or deliver defect-ridden code.

Within the project team, the ability to give appropriate negative feedback could be transforming. The retrospective is a tool we use to call out negative behavior without devaluing any individual. But, like performance reviews, we often delay retrospectives and save up negative behaviors for one big discussion.

Could we improve by learning to do mini-retrospectives in real time? Your side of the conversation might include the following: “I don’t feel like we did so well on this. Here’s my perception of what happened,” “This impacted me by ...” and “What can we do better next time?” Don’t forget to finish it up with something positive about the person, such as “I really value your dedication to high-quality work. It makes me know I can always trust you to deliver. Thanks for being part of the team.”

Setting expectations and giving positive and negative feedback are powerful skills that can be learned. What good things might happen to your project team if you all did a bit of one-minute management?

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