I wanted to share a management learning that I took away from Andy Grove’s seminal book, High Output Management, written in 1983. The lesson is relevant to any product manager, entrepreneur, or people manager.
One of Andy’s key principles in his book is, “The output of a manager is the output of the organizational units under his or her supervision or influence.”
People managers frequently have to make decisions about what work to delegate to others on the team, and once that work has been delegated, how to elicit top performance from their teammates. This holds true for product managers as well. PMs are often the “glue” that binds together the entire product team. As such, they often feel responsible to make sure that all tasks — even the ones that slip through the cracks — are completed. PMs are constantly faced with the decision about whether to take on a task themselves, or whether to delegate to a member of the cross-functional team. And if that task is delegated, how should the PM follow up and manage the performance of the task?
In High Output Management, Andy writes about a framework to determine how to delegate, monitor, and manage performance called Task-Relevant Maturity. Andy says that your management style should vary with the task-relevant maturity of your subordinate — or, in the case of a PM, the cross-functional teammate to whom you delegate.
What exactly is Task-Relevant Maturity? Andy defines Task-Relevant Maturity as:
“A combination of the degree of their achievement orientation and readiness to take responsibility, as well as their education, training, and experience. Moreover, all this is very specific to the task at hand, and it is entirely possible for a person or a group of people to have a TRM that is high in one job but low in another.”
I have written about some of the concepts behind Task-Relevant Maturity in an older post, “When to Delegate.” You can summarize the concepts of “achievement orientation and readiness to take responsibility” as “will,” and the concepts of “education, training, and experience” as “skill.” As a shorthand way of remembering these concepts, you can use the phrase “Skill/Will.” The insight from Andy is that Skill/Will is not an absolute or generalized quality, but something that varies for the same individual by task. Someone could have high Skill/Will or one task, but low Skill/Will for another. That is the key take-away from Task-Relevant Maturity.
So how do you apply Task-Relevant Maturity as a people manager or product manager? Andy discusses what the appropriate management style should be for individuals with low, medium, and high Task-Relevant Maturity.
Low Task-Relevant Maturity
“When the TRM is low, the most effective approach is one that offers very precise and detailed instructions, wherein the supervisor tells the subordinate what needs to be done, when, and how: in other words, a highly structured approach.”
For low TRM individuals and tasks, the manager needs to be more hands-on and almost prescriptive. Modern management theory tells us that being a hands-on, prescriptive manager at all times is not a good thing. But in reality, there are situations where it is probably helpful and necessary. When you have someone who is very new to an urgent or critical task and lacks self-confidence, then providing a highly structured management approach with precise and detailed instructions is necessary. High achieving subordinates or teammates will want to quickly graduate from a low TRM state, but they will benefit from the highly structured approach when they are in it.
Medium Task-Relevant Maturity
“As the TRM of the subordinate grows, the most effective style moves from the structured to one more given to communication, emotional support, and encouragement, in which the manager pays more attention to the subordinate as an individual than to the task at hand.”
This is the main mode for which modern management theory advocates — that of being a coach, rather than a hands-on manager. A coach provides encouragement and emotional support as a subordinate or teammate completes a task. The goal for the manager is to be an enabler and assist the subordinate to complete the task on their own by providing advice, support, and counsel. The manager should be clear regarding what is expected, but shouldn’t specify the how — she should leave the how up to the individual who will be completing the task.
Many managers automatically assume that they should play the role of coach in all situations. The key insight from Andy Grove is that the manager should only be the coach when the subordinate or teammate is at medium TRM. If they are not yet at medium TRM, the manager should provide a highly structured approach.
High Task-Relevant Maturity
“As the TRM becomes even greater, the effective management style changes again. Here the manager’s involvement should be kept to a minimum, and should primarily consist of making sure that the objectives toward which the subordinate is working are mutually agreed upon.”
In this situation, the manager should spend most of the time up front developing mutual agreement with the subordinate or teammate on the goals. Once the goals have been agreed upon, the manager should play a relatively hands-off role while the subordinate completes the task.
To elicit the maximum performance from high TRM individuals and tasks, the manager should question the goals proposed by the subordinate, and establish high standards of performance. Sometimes, individuals may be thinking too incrementally, and the manager should encourage the individual to “Think 10x.” In other cases, the individual may not know what excellent performance looks like. And in still other cases, the individual may lack the self-confidence to set aggressive goals. The job of the manager in all of these cases is to encourage the individual to think bigger, aim higher, and be bolder.
Andy admonishes managers to follow up with subordinates or teammates, regardless of where they are on the TRM spectrum.
“Regardless of what the TRM may be, the manager should always monitor a subordinate’s work closely enough to avoid surprises. The presence or absence of monitoring… is the difference between a supervisor’s delegating a task and abdicating it.”
This is a frequent mistake that people managers and product managers make. They decide to delegate a task to a subordinate or teammate, but then they don’t monitor or follow up on the task at all. Even if someone is medium or high TRM, the manager should monitor the subordinate’s work closely and frequently. Andy discusses one reason, which is to avoid surprises. The other reason is that the manager can intervene and course correct the individual if they are getting off track. Even if someone is high TRM, the manager should still monitor and intervene if necessary, particularly if the task is urgent and critical.
I like the word “abdicate” that Andy used above. Managers who lack self-confidence sometimes abdicate responsibility to their subordinates or teammates. They assign a task but then don’t do any follow up or monitoring. This approach is always risky, because the individual could get off-track and then the product development (and the customer) suffers as a result.
Raising the TRM of individuals on the team
Andy Grove ends his discussion of Task-Relevant Maturity by observing that managers want to raise the TRM of subordinates as quickly as possible. The engagement model for someone with high TRM takes less time than someone with low TRM, which increases the supervisor’s managerial leverage. With individuals at high TRM, the manager can delegate more to her subordinates, and free herself up to focus on even more higher leverage activities. Thus, the output of the overall team goes up as individuals on the team transition to a high TRM state for their tasks.
The concept of Task-Relevant Maturity is an incredibly useful lesson for all product managers, entrepreneurs, and people managers. The key take-aways from Andy Grove in High Output Management are:
- Task-relevant maturity consists of skill/will: the combination of education and experience (“skill”) as well as achievement orientation and willingness to take responsibility (“will”)
- Task-relevant maturity may vary for the same individual in different situations. It is highly task-specific. Think through whether the individual to whom you are delegating is low, medium, or high TRM for this particular task.
- For low TRM situations, you should be hands-on and almost prescriptive. Provide a highly structured approach, with precise and detailed instructions.
- For medium TRM situations, you should play the role of a coach. Be clear with the what, but don’t specify the how. Be an enabler by providing advice, support, and counsel.
- For high TRM situations, you should spend time up front agreeing on the goals. Question the goals being proposed, set high expectations of performance. But then be relatively hands-off.
- In all situations, be sure to monitor performance closely, to ensure that you’re truly delegating responsibility instead of abdicating it. If you don’t monitor, you’re creating a risky situation where you can’t course correct and may cause the project and customer to suffer.