Review: High Output Management

High Output Management reminds me a bit of A Random Walk Down Wall Street

Mostly in the sense that both are the grandfather tomes, of people management and investment strategy respectively. And while both are worth the time to read and appreciate how modern best practices originated, given that there’s been decades’ worth of iteration and evolution, their application in 2018 is at best muted and occasionally superseded.

HOM was written by Andy Grove, the legendary CEO of Intel who pioneered many of the processes used by Silicon Valley tech companies in the modern internet era. Ideas like Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) and holding regular 1-on-1s with your reports are detailed here, with a level of earnestness—addressing an audience skeptical of these newfangled techniques at the time—which are now simply table stakes for running teams. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate; plenty of major corporations and governments have not updated management styles since the 60s, so if they happen on a copy of High Output Management and can convince their organizations of its worth, its advice can still seem fresh to a particular audience.

At the time the book was written, Intel was primarily a microprocessor company whose expertise in manufacturing and logistics1, and Grove draws many of his object lessons from that discipline. In particular, he invokes this analogy of building a pipeline to serve breakfast, and through diagnosing the efficiencies of making toast and scrambling eggs, relates to universal business truths about dependencies and business models and mitigating risks.

If you happen to be in logistics, the wisdom here may indeed be revelatory; I certainly thought so when I first picked up HOM as precursor reading to Square’s internal management classes. It loses much of its charm and relevance, though, upon a couple more re-readings, as most businesses and projects don’t really face the same types of constraints as those of a manufacturing and raw material pipelines. In fact, with software, a wholly different set of constraints—around consumer expectations, speed of iteration, job market demand, etc.—call for a very different set of management strategies.

As mentioned up top, don’t expect High Output Management to provide hidden insights on management, as many of its successors in the genre have built upon the lessons that Grove put forth here. It remains a great foundational book, however, and adds historical context to how some of the processes we now take for granted were still very effective in their earlier incarnations. It’s a people management classic, especially for those new to the role.

  1. Ironically, with the departure of its most recent CEO, Intel has witnessed and lived through, its irrelevance in mobile hardware, and a prior strength in desktop processing has morphed into a weakness.

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