This book had been on my to-read list for quite some time, since it comes highly recommended by Ben Horowitz and others. Although the book is mainly directed at middle managers in large corporations, many of its lessons are applicable to all “knowledge workers.”
The key idea of the book is to take an output-based approach to your work. Figure out what it is that you (or your team) could be said to produce: widgets, TPS reports, lines of code, etc. Your goal is to produce this output in the most effective way possible. In order to do that, Grove discusses three areas of management: production, leverage, and performance.
To improve your production, you must recognize what the component parts of your work look like. This means categorizing your work into process steps (e.g. a standup meeting), assembly steps (writing code), and test steps (running the code to see if it works). There are many alternative ways to approach any given task, and your responsibility is to find the most cost-effective approach.
One important lesson that Grove shares about testing steps is to try to find problems while your output is still at the lowest-value stage possible. In other words, verify the quality of your inputs before expending effort to add value. For example, you could review a co-worker’s report while it is still in the rough draft stage to see if they are on the right track, rather than waiting until the end and suggesting they start over. In software development, one way to apply this lesson is to verify the quality of data before investigating potential bugs in code.
The second part of the book is focused on leverage. The key insight here is to recognize that in contemporary workplaces, work is pursued by teams rather than individuals (xii). Furthermore, teams perform well when individuals are motivated to do their best. To help with this, team members need task-relevant feedback in order to improve.
Work simplification is one example of a way to increase leverage. Ask why a particular step is performed. If it is unnecessary, remove it. If it is necessary but could be made moree efficient, do so.
A knowledge worker can also increase her own leverage in several ways. One is to increase the rate of activity: do the same things, only faster. This could be achieved by reducing latency or using higher-quality inputs. Another way is to increase the leverage of her activities, such as by shifting the mix of activities away from low leverage activities and toward higher leverage ones.
The book concludes with practical tips for performance. The first is to realize that your day-to-day activities should not be confused with your outputs. Day-to-day activities of a manager typically fall into one of the following categories: information gathering, decision making, and nudges. Recognizing when to apply each of these (and when they have reached diminishing returns) is a key management skill.
Some of the tips in the book are very tactical. One suggestion is to use your calendar as a production planning tool, rather than as an inventory of who has requested your time. Another recommendation is “ask one more question”: whenever you think a team member has said all they want to say, follow up a bit to be sure. This is most applicable in 1:1’s between a manager and a report, but could be used in other settings as well.
Overall this book provides highly general advice, and there is a good reason that it is so widely recommended.