4 insights from High Output Management

Wanting to broaden my knowledge in management, I picked up High Output Management after I saw it come up a few times on Hacker News. Andrew Grove’s writing is very down to earth and practical and I had quite a few a-ha moments. Here are 4 ideas that stood out for me and I use in my day to day work.

1. Variable Inspection

Later, when we examine managerial productivity, we’ll see that when a manager digs deeply into a specific activity under his jurisdiction, he’s applying the principle of variable inspection. If the manager examined everything his various subordinates did, he would be meddling, which for the most part would be a waste of his time.

Since the manager is responsible for everything produced by his team, there is an inclination to try and take part in, or at least review everything that is produced (which is a very bad idea!). You can’t review all the code your team produces, you’ll become a bottleneck and so lower your team productivity. On the other hand, saying “write good code” doesn’t work either.

Variable inspection suggest that you can get the optimal benefit from inspecting a limited number of tasks. By going deep into some tasks it’s possible to better understand the different challenges your team faces in a more intimate way. For example, realizing there is a broken component that makes everyone’s work much less efficient, or that something you thought was done in a certain way, is actually done completely differently. Another benefit is that you can provide guidance and standards (training) that will outlast the scope of the current review, and that that individual will pass it on while reviewing others' work - hence having a cumulative effect.

2. Meetings are not so bad after all

Before you are horrified by how much time I spend in meetings, answer a question: which of the activities—information-gathering, information-giving, decision-making, nudging, and being a role model—could I have performed outside a meeting? The answer is practically none. Meetings provide an occasion for managerial activities. Getting together with others is not, of course, an activity—it is a medium.

Developers hate meetings. I hated meetings. At the beginning of my managerial role, I tried to avoid those as much as possible (and on the way might have hurt some people’s feelings 🙁). Grove’s writing changed my opinion of meetings. He believes that there are 5 aspects to a manager’s job: “information-gathering, information-giving, decision-making, nudging, and being a role model”. These roles can be also taken care of in emails and such, but in truth, meetings are very effective at these. Meeting in person allows us to gain insight from hearing the person’s tone and body language, as well as to exchange ideas faster.

The thing about meetings is, that people (mangers!) can be inconsiderate of other people’s time, e.g. “now that we are here, what should we talk about” kind of meetings. The gist for me is to have effective meetings.

3. Forecasting

From my experience a large portion of managerial work can be forecasted. Accordingly, forecasting those things you can and setting yourself up to do them is only common sense and an important way to minimize the feeling and the reality of fragmentation experienced in managerial work. Forecasting and planning your time around key events are literally like running an efficient factory.

This. What I liked about Grove’s approach is that he treats management like another engineering practice. The idea is to design a management system that is predictable and efficient. This is something I had a hunch about myself previous to reading the book (see meeting protocols). Following reading the book, I started to view my role as the person in charge of setting the correct work framework for the team more than being in charge of everything that happens. Success will come when the right frameworks are in place and work is planned correctly. And so, in meetings where each team member presents what he is working on, I present my tasks that are part optimizing the work pipeline and improving work processes.

Because manufacturing people trust their indicators, they won’t allow material to begin its journey through the factory if they think it is already operating at capacity. If they did, material might go halfway through and back up behind a bottleneck. Instead, factory managers say “no” at the outset and keep the start level from overloading the system… It is important to say “no” earlier rather than later because we’ve learned that to wait until something reaches a higher value stage and then abort due to lack of capacity means losing more money and time… There is an optimum degree of loading, with enough slack built in so that one unanticipated phone call will not ruin your schedule for the rest of the day. You need some slack.

What follows is that the way to reach optimal performance is to keep the system at capacity and to include some slack in it to allow for flexibility. Failing to do so will eventually create bottlenecks that will be much more expensive than the gain that is possible by crumping more work in.This insight gets lost a lot of time in our daily work. Managers feel the pressure to excel and deliver, but are ignoring the price of congestion in the system. Hence once surprises arrive (and they will), havoc begins.

4. Task-relevant maturity

The fundamental variable that determines the effective management style is the task-relevant maturity of the subordinate.

A question that I ask myself a lot is how involved do I need to be in this or that task. Too involved - micromanaging, too removed - can be reckless. The task-relevant maturity parameter is a good benchmark to measure against and to communicate your choices. The more a person is mature in regard to a certain task - the less involvement is needed. The nice thing about this concept is that it allows higher resolution than measuring by the general experience a person has and allows you as a manager to communicate it in a pragmatic fashion (explanations are needed when choosing to micro-manage, trust me).

I felt Grove was writing about me when he mentioned the manager’s inclination to avoid micro-managing:

That mode is one that we don’t think an enlightened manager should use. As a result, we often don’t take it up until it is too late and events overwhelm us.

Well, that happened to me more than once! Of course, I want to be an enlightened manager and give as much freedom to my subordinates. This explanation helps me counter that feeling by moving the discussion from the emotional perspective into the practical one.

To write this post, I went through my book highlights and there are many more good ideas that didn’t reach this blog post. Also a lot of the benefit from reading it is to to understand Grove’s general no-nonsense attitude and applying that mindset in your job. So, I highly recommend reading it yourself!