What managers get wrong about Andy Grove, high output management, and their one-on-ones

Adam Berke

The book “High Output Management” is one of the the most influential texts ever published for managers and initiated many of the practices we now take for granted. If you manage people, you should read it.

That said, there is a piece of guidance in the book that has taken on a life of its own and causes confusion among managers as they try to implement one of the primary best practices from the book: the one-on-one.

Specifically, in his description of how to conduct one-on-one meetings with your employees, Mr Grove says:

A key point about a one-on-one: It should be regarded as the subordinate’s meeting, with its agenda and tone set by him.

So while the spirit of the one-on-one being “the subordinate’s meeting” makes sense, many managers take this idea way too far, and interpret it to mean they don’t need to give any initial guidance to their employees, provide any structure, or have a system in place for follow up or accountability (for themselves and their employee.)

They simply tell the team member “it’s your meeting” and hope for the best. This puts undue stress on the employee who might not know where to start, makes it hard to keep track of decisions and outcomes, and is almost certain to result in a sub-optimal conversation.

Managers, in their rightful zeal for Grove’s directives also fail to recognize how workplace communication has evolved since the book was first published in 1983, and how software can help to create a repeatable processes, reduce friction, and increase communication velocity.

Since Grove was operating well before the proliferation of web applications and even before the widespread availability of the internet, it’s worth keeping in mind that had the enabling technologies been available, he might have done things differently himself. He readily admits this when he wrote a new intro to the book, including a section called “What Happened After 1983” to take into account the introduction of email in the workplace. He says:

Two critical events took place in the 1980s that altered the environment in which we managers do our work—and this made me realize that an updated Introduction to this book was necessary. Those events were the Japanese memory onslaught and e-mail.

Grove’s primary rationale for the subordinate driving the one-on-one was around the time demands on the manager, but he readily admits that the transition to digital changes the calculus:

E-mail is also the first manifestation of a revolution in how information flows and how it is managed. The informed use of e-mail...results in two fundamentally simple but startling implications. It turns days into minutes, and the originator of a message can reach dozens or more of his or her co-workers with the same effort it takes to reach just one. As a result, if your organization 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.

In addition to missing out on the improved communication web based tools can enable, this guidance about agenda ownership often causes managers to miss an important opportunity to build a better relationship with their team members and have the most productive meeting possible.

There are a few key problems that emerge when managers misinterpret the guidance about one-on-one ownership and don’t take an active role in the process.

They take it as permission to come in cold and unprepared.

While Grove talks about the employee “preparing” for the meeting, that doesn’t mean the manager shouldn’t come in with a perspective and provide guidance if the agenda misses key topics. Grove says, “Moreover, with an outline, the superior knows at the outset what is to be covered, and can therefore help to set the pace of the meeting based on the “meatiness” of each item.” But for some reason, many managers omit this part of the process.

To facilitate this, the manager and more junior team member should utilize a collaborative agenda so the manager can see what the employee wants to talk about ahead of time and at least put some thought into the topics. Also, the manager might have visibility to issues that the employee doesn’t, so making it a hard and fast rule to not participate in the agenda is a massive missed opportunity. In Grove’s era, this would be hard to do, but in the digital era, it’s easy to collaborate and quickly add items.
In fact, across companies that use Charma, we see that managers actually create 41% of the discussion topics and action items, and employees create 59%. So it’s definitely still weighted towards the employee, but with the right enabling technology, it’s much more balanced than if we take Mr Grove’s guidance at face value.

It assumes the employee knows the right things to put on the agenda.

Grove was a CEO, so his direct reports were seasoned executives who could run an effective one-on-one. But how about a first time manager managing a junior employee early in their career. Does the junior person even know what topics to bring up? Too often, these managers read High Output Management, and think “great, I’ll put a recurring meeting on the calendar and just let my new employees set the agenda!” Not only does this result in an inefficient use of time, it puts a tremendous amount of stress and ambiguity on junior employees who don’t know what’s appropriate to bring up or how to approach sensitive topics with their manager. 

It abdicates responsibility for bringing up important topics and delaying critical conversations.

Depending on how many regularly occurring meetings a manager has with an individual employee, the one-on-one can be the only time to discuss important topics like career development, feedback for the manager, discuss performance issues, etc. If the manager doesn’t intervene in the agenda from time to time, a valuable opportunity to provide coaching and guidance gets lost.

So while High Output Management has certainly stood the test of time as the text book for effective operations, managers could benefit from considering just how literally they take the advice around the one-on-one being the employee’s meeting. Totally abdicating responsibility for a key meeting and failing to take advantage of technical advancements certainly isn’t what Andy Grove had in mind.

Interested in improving your one-on-ones? Charma provides a guided experience where managers and their team can collaborate on agendas, assign action items, and be notified when work gets done.

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