Why “High Output Management” is the real source of truth for middle managers

I’ve been judging this book by its cover for a couple of months, but the constant recommendations from podcasts, authors and CEO’s nudged me into finally reading it. Now I get it, it is indeed a real gem with an outdated cover picture.

Most of the classic literature around management and leadership focus either on the first line supervisor or the top level executive of a company, leaving no room for advice for all of the managers in the middle. Taking into consideration the time of the original writing of the book (1983), Andrew S. Grove, former Intel CEO drops a series of unconventional (which now seem conventional) strategies and approaches to management throughout the book. Here are the ones I consider the main takeaways as it would be impossible to summarize all of the wisdom written in it.

To better understand his concept of High Output Management (HOM) the author enlists a series of analogies on how an organization built for profit should look like, and through these examples you understand why having a high output from your current systems and process would be so beneficial for the company. Right after making his point, Andy defines his concept of HOM:

The output of a manager is the output of the organizational units under his or her supervision or influence.

A manager can do his “own” job, his individual work, and do it well, but that does not constitute his output.

I’ve never read such a succinct definition of management. Most of the common books, including several HBR articles and compilations focus a lot on “being a leader” for the sake of being a good manager, and while this is not completely false, it misses half of the complete picture. Through a series of questions, the author challenges the reader/manager to assess his real output and therefore prove his point:

  • Are you adding real value or merely passing information along?
  • Are you plugged into what’s happening around you? Or do you wait for a supervisor or others to interpret whatever is happening?
  • Are you trying new ideas, new techniques, and new technologies, and I mean personally trying them, not just reading about them? Or are you waiting for others to figure out how they can re-engineer your workplace — and you out of that workplace?

This book not only explains to you in terms of a five-year old how HOM works, but it enlists a series of practical advice on how to actually execute it.

The art of management lies in the capacity to select from the many activities of seemingly comparable significance the one or two or three that provide leverage well beyond the others and concentrate on them.

The main argument made in this chapters is that a manager should focus most of his time on high-leverage activities, because time is not infinite, the manager could get lost doing a great deal of chores but not generating the equal amount of impact derived from these. These activites should have at least one of the following objectives: 1) information gathering, 2) decision making, 3) “nudging” others. And how do you think most of these high-leverage activities get conducted? You guessed it, through meetings.

Common business knowledge suggests that you’re a loser if you’re spending time in meetings, well guess what?

“A meeting is nothing less than the medium through which managerial work is performed.”

Sorry to be against the boring meeting narrative, but I do subscribe to the author’s argument and here is why. I think that we have lost respect for the real categorization of meetings: Process-Oriented Meetings and Mission-Oriented Meetings. A great number of meetings do not serve either one of these 2 purposes and neither have the intention to gather information, make a decision or nudge other teams. Meetings are a medium of work, both too few and too many meetings create waste.

Process-Oriented Meetings: These meetings allow a process review between teams in which managers balance being leader, observer, expediter, questioner and decision-maker — but avoid lecturing or weighing in too soon or too heavily to bias decisions that should be owned by the team. They can also serve to share information and receive questions and feedback. Examples: The one-on-one, the staff meeting, and the operation review.

Mission-Oriented Meetings: created ad-hoc to reach a decision. These should be rare (less than 25% of your time). The meeting chair should be well prepared and ensure the people vital to reaching a decision attend and are also prepared.

My attempt at “charting” the HOM meeting model

Now, after talking about management generalities we dive into the most important nuance of management, people. In these chapters, the book opens with the basics of building a high performing team, it’s culture.

It’s a manager’s responsibility to align team members to group interests, therefore the organization can thrive equally and avoid the much dreaded “silo” effect. It puts certain responsibility on the manager to create this culture before jumping into specific objectives and metrics, and through my years of experience as a manager I’ve discovered this the hard way.

Now, what happens if you’ve set the cultural base, but don’t see anyone thriving? Is the author wrong? Isn’t this supposed to be the magic formula?

Well not really, you need to assess on a personal level where is your team located inside the Skill & Will matrix, you need to understand if you need to either motivate, direct or delegate tasks to your direct report, this is key before assigning any type of strategic business objectives, because it will let you boil down the intrinsic motivation behind your team’s motives. If there is a gap in terms of knowledge/skill you will need to dress up in your overalls and train directly the person so that the skill gap is covered, but if the person is not motivated but highly skilled then the approach would be to “shape the field”. Since motivation has to come from within somebody. Accordingly, all a manager can do is create an environment in which motivated people can flourish.

“To determine which, we can employ a simple mental test: if the person’s life depended on doing the work, could he do it? If the answer is yes, that person is not motivated; if the answer is no, he is not capable.”

So if two things limit high output, a manager has two ways to tackle the issue: through training and motivation. Then and only then, you can review performance.

Performance Management “Pyramid”

Being a high-output manager is hard, it’s more than passing along information, it’s more than “being present” during meetings, it’s more than complying with the “leadership essentials” toolkit, it’s more than setting high objectives for your team.

I see the manager journey as an ongoing practice, in the same way lawyers “practice” law, we middle managers should “practice” management and try to become better at it every day.

If you enjoyed this summary you might enjoy my other publications

There are several topics covered in the book which I didn’t mention in this article, not because they are not important, but because these are the takeaways that resonated the most for me. This publication is intended mostly to serve me as an exercise to retain most of the information I read in the book. I felt it was too good to just read it and not digest the takeaways.

Head of Retail Operations @ Uber