'High Output Management': Old Book Breathes New Lessons for Startup Leadership

'High Output Management': Old Book Breathes New Lessons for Startup Leadership

Insights | 11 September 2017

When the late Intel CEO Andy Grove’s popular book on leadership “High Output Management” came out in 1983, the tech world was still one year away from the unveiling of Apple’s first Macintosh computer.

Given the pace of change since then, one would think even this legendary book by a Silicon Valley icon from the 1980s would feel dated in 2017. But a new generation of managers have recently re-discovered “High Output Management”[1] and are embracing it anew.

What’s the appeal?

To its fans, the simplicity is timeless.

Further nudging its newfound fame was a mention in entrepreneur and venture capitalist Ben Horowitz’s engaging 2014 leadership book, “The Hard Things About Hard Things.” [2]

The book itself is a relatively quick read, but here are six of the most meaningful takeaways for leaders today:

  1. The book is full of amazing quotes.

Here’s one of the most prescient: “We must recognise that no amount of formal planning can anticipate changes such as globalisation and the information revolution… Does that mean that you shouldn’t plan? Not at all. You need to plan the way a fire department plans. It cannot anticipate where the next fire will be, so it has to shape an energetic and efficient team that is capable of responding to the unanticipated as well as to any ordinary event.”

  1. He knew the information revolution was about communication, not the tech.

Grove believed that Japanese workers had an edge because they were better and faster than their U.S. counterparts to communicate, typically all sitting within speaking distance in the office setting. Email would unlock a digital version of that close communication beyond Japan, profoundly changing the way all businesses operated. Here’s what Grove wrote: “If your organisation uses e-mail, a lot more people know what’s going on in your business than did before, and they know it a lot faster than they used to.”

  1. Even the homework is interesting.

Tien, an entrepreneurial fan, rightly points out how fitting it is that such a pragmatic, outcome-focused leadership book should end with … homework. Tien writes: “Andy sets the expectation that if you complete at least 100 points of the total possible 320 points offered in the assignments, you’ll be a better manager. No better way to end a book about managing output than measuring the output of the book itself on the reader.”

  1. Meetings (really do) matter.

Meetings have the worst reputation, we can all agree, and often for the best reasons. Boring PowerPoint decks and hazy agendas … check and check. Grove agrees, but not in the way you might think. He’s quite bullish on meetings, especially the value of 1-on-1s between manager and employee. “Ninety minutes of your time can enhance the quality of your subordinate’s work for two weeks, or for some eighty-plus hours,” Grove wrote. Yes, 90 minutes. Grove believed that to make your direct reports truly comfortable enough to open up, you have to first break through the initial low-hanging issues that typically dominate the first half-hour or hour of any manager/employee meeting. Also, he advised, let them set the agenda.

  1. Great managers never rest.

One foundation of a great manager, Grove modeled, was a near-constant state of productive concern. Worry about the competition, production quality, mistakes, inefficiencies…his personal list was long. But it would be hard to overstate the impact that his hands-on (and oftentimes quite candid) form of leadership had on Intel. As the local paper wrote in his obituary: “…from the day he became CEO until he stepped down … in 1998, Intel’s annual sales increased from $1.9 billion to $25 billion, and its profit ballooned from $248 million to $6.9 billion. Few other tech CEOs have even come close to existing in this stratosphere.[3]

  1. People’s backstories (also) matter.

Grove’s rise to legend at Intel came from an improbable background. The “Time” magazine Man of the Year selection had come to the U.S. as a Hungarian Jew, broke, speaking no English.[4]

Taken together, the lessons from “High Output Management” are a welcome reminder that truly great ideas never go out of style. And, of course, that managing people and processes is difficult and we can all use a little help along the way.

Grove died March 2016 in his Silicon Valley home. He was 79.[5]

Tell us: What books have influenced your leadership style? Have you recommended any leadership books to friends and colleagues recently?

[1] https://www.amazon.com/dp/B015VACHOK/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1
[2] https://www.amazon.com.au/Hard-Thing-About-Things-Building-Business-Answers/dp/B00DQ845EA/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1496254290&sr=8-1&keywords=hard+thing+about+hard+things
[3] http://www.mercurynews.com/2016/03/21/andy-grove-former-intel-ceo-and-silicon-valley-icon-dies-at-79/
[4] http://a16z.com/2015/11/13/high-output-management/
[5] http://www.mercurynews.com/2016/03/21/andy-grove-former-intel-ceo-and-silicon-valley-icon-dies-at-79/
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