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Ilya Tulvio

Book notes

High Output Management

High Output Management, written by former Intel CEO Andrew S. Grove, is the management classic of the tech industry. Published in 1983, it has inspired generations of Silicon Valley startups. But is it one of those works that was revolutionary in its time but is now of interest only as a curiosity of Silicon Valley history?

It is not. High Output is a delightful gem of a book that holds up well to the test of time. The writing is crisp and the language so effortlessly simple that it makes me wring my hands with envy. This is even more impressive given that English isn’t Grove’s native language. Concepts are brought to life with personal anecdotes, illustrative examples and helpful analogies.

One of Grove’s edicts is that managers need to be able to train their staff — and this is how High Output reads: as if it was written as a guidebook for the managers of Intel.

Trying to pick out a few select pieces of Grove’s wisdom is tricky, as repeating them as simple edicts doesn’t do justice to how well Grove is able to bring them to life (though if that’s what you’re looking for, Ian Tien does a very nice job summarizing each chapter). But here’s a selection of the notes that I took.

A manager’s job is to gather information, nudge, and make decisions. How to tell when to do which (and how) is explained with examples.

Everyone’s work can be seen to have outputs. A manager’s output is that of the organization that she manages + the directly adjacent ones (“neighboring organizations under her influence”). This neatly binds a manager’s effectiveness to how well she can communicate with her peers; backstabbing and withholding information is not good for business.

Delegate the things you know well (even though this likely means that you will be delegating work you enjoy), as you will know how to monitor these better. Delegation is giving someone a task (with the freedom to do it) but monitoring and supporting when needed. Micromanagement is giving someone a task but dictating every step and intervening if it deviates from how you’d do it.

Monitor as you would do quality assurance; sample randomly and early. The later you leave it the more rework might be involved (just like the cost of bugs!).

Manage your calendar actively (as a factory manages via forecasting), otherwise your calendar manages you; say no to work that’s beyond your capacity. Plan around your “limiting steps”.

Someone new to a job needs different management (“what”, “how” and “when”) than someone experienced in it (“set objectives and monitor”). Grove calls this “task-related maturity”.

It’s the manager’s job to train their staff (not rely on a HR team’s training or external training consultants). Training is a high-leverage activity (i.e. high ROI of the manager’s time) that focuses specifically on the how things work in your company.

There are parts that didn’t really resonate with me: the chapters on dual reporting and organizational models (mission-oriented vs functional) felt like they dragged on. I initially thought that this might be because they are more well-known concepts these days, but it could equally be that this just isn’t something that I’ve been responsible myself as a manager.

I never really got company values or “culture.” Values have always felt trite and superficial to me, and culture is this vague intangible that everyone says is super important but that nobody can seem to define. The best thing I’ve ever read about culture was what Michael Lapp wrote about it (my favorite chapter in Managing Humans). As Lopp has it, a company’s culture is created and spread by the stories that workers tell each other.

But Grove’s “modes of control” suggests the cultural values play a vital role in dictating how people behave when complexity, uncertainty, ambiguity is high. Grove doesn’t really say much on how to choose and establish these cultural values, but it was definitely a fresh way to look at how and when culture and values come into play.

Other topics (listed mainly for my own benefit, so I might remember to go back to the book when I face one of these situations): performance reviews, interviewing, and talking someone out of quitting.