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Builders are the new Pro athletes

July 14th, 2021

Just a little over 40 years ago, Intel CEO Andy Grove, gave the best definition of the role of a manager.

grove-managers-output

The manager's output is the output of his organization, plus the output of the neighboring organizations under his influence.

In other words, a manager is not just responsible for the output of his team, but also for the output of other teams under his adjacent influence.

While the goal of a manager is still the very same – maximizing teams' outputs – it seems that the path for it has quite changed over the years.

In less than a century we shifted from a management model where standardization and control of people were the only key leverages to increase outputs to the opposite one. One that sees value creation and value capture as the byproducts of individual autonomy, creativity, and the right mix of talents. Context, rather than control, is now at the leading edge.

What did unlock such an important shift? While there are many complex answers to this question (see Context over Control where I delved a bit more into the topic), one of the key factors that made the shift possible has been the transition from labor to knowledge work.

From generalists to single-domain experts, from interchangeable skill sets to highly differentiated ones, and from being considered a commodity market to a highly competitive one.

It's now more than ever clear that people are the single most important asset of any modern organization.

Pulling that thread, it seems that we're now at an inflection point where some categories of elite knowledge workers are starting to look more like PRO athletes. With engineers and creators, in general, leading the top positions.

On the flip side, the role of managers and operators is starting to adjust accordingly and resemble more one of coaches. From positions of supervision and dictation to an inverse model where the primary responsibilities are in supporting, enabling, and unblocking the people who are doing the hard work.

This leads us to some interesting questions. How are modern leaders supposed to act and operate in such a radically new environment? How are they supposed to motivate, train and enable their people to do their best work?

Of course, the answers are very complex and, above all, everything is very culture-dependent but in this post, I'll try to distill some practical tactics and tips that might work for your team regardless of the size or the stage of your company.

1. Don't tell how to do their job, teach how they should work in your team

Football coaches don't teach players how to score penalties. They teach them how to play as a team.

Similarly, if you acknowledge the fact that your team members have enough experience, rather than being focused on telling them how to execute their job, you should be focused on how to make them work together as a team.

The way a team operates can be very different from company to company. Your job is to make sure they know how to play in your team.

What if some of your team members just don't have enough experience? How do you know if you actually need to be a bit more instructive? The criteria to apply here comes once again from Andy Grove.

In High-Output Management he called it Task Relevance Maturity (TRM).

task relevant maturity

The TRM is a combination of training, experience, and readiness to take responsibility and use it to achieve amazing results.

Education, training, and experience fall under personal skills. Readiness and willingness to take in responsibility, and being achievement-oriented would fall under a person’s will.

Furthermore, TRM is not an absolute and generalized quality but highly dynamic for the same individual that ranges from task to task.

Someone with high TRM has a balance of both skill and will to accomplish the given task. In this case, the manager shouldn't be focused on being giving too much guidance and prescriptions.

On the other side, members with low TRM can still benefit from a highly structured management approach. In this case, precise and very detailed instructions are necessary.

In short, your approach should be adjusted accordingly to the TRM evaluations of your team members. If your AVG team's TRM is high enough, you should focus your efforts on making them play well as a team as opposed to telling them how to play individually.

2. Improve the quality of decisions by maximizing context

On a basic level, the performance of a team is a function of (1) the quality of the decisions that they take and (2) how rapidly they are able to execute them.

High-functioning teams are able to perform well along both dimensions.

As a manager, you won't be able to make all the decisions or you simply would end up slowing down the entire team. So you need the team to be able to take smart decisions autonomously.

How? By giving them context and all available information.

You have to ensure information is always symmetric and people constantly have all the data.

From one side, focus on distributing information and making things transparent, and from the other focus on designing processes intended to keep things open and explicit.

Written memorialized communication should be the preferable way to distribute information as people can read, absorb and get perspective at their own pace.

As you can guess, this job becomes fundamental for fully hybrid or distributed environments. Ones where peripheral communication doesn't happen unless you're very deliberate about it, and disconnections are much more likely to arise.

3. Consolidate perspectives

Giving people access to the same data doesn't mean they will naturally draw to the same conclusion (think about the Rashomon effect) or execute exactly how you envisioned. Making information ubiquitous and easily accessible it's just the first step.

Your job is also to help your team navigate information and make sense of its complexity.

As a manager, you'll find that people often have divergent perspectives on things. Your job is to regularly consolidate their point of view to ensure constant alignment and unity of direction. I shared in another post some heuristics to ensure your team is on the same page.

4. Strive to keep high talent density

As talent scarcity is increasingly becoming one of the hardest problems, the ability to assess, recruit, and retain talent is going to be an invaluable skill.

When it comes down to retaining these categories of elite knowledge workers the number one factor is talent density.

High-quality engineers prefer to work with other high-quality engineers. The result is that great engineers typically be found in clusters. On the flip side, hiring average engineers in high-performing teams can cripple and demotivate other members.

To increase your team performance it's essential to be aware of your own talent density factor and ensure you're not diluting as you add new members.

5. Find your team cadence, then learn the deviation range

The best athletes know how to pace themselves. They know how to better dose energy to sustain longer efforts and cover great distances without a massive slow down in performance.

But like in sport, pacing requires self-knowledge and self-control.

You should know what's the operational cadence that your team can sustain without too much stress or physical debt.

Once you know the team cadence, you can guess the deviation range. In other words the sweet spots for max and min efforts. This will allow you to plan more accurately the workloads by alternating intense sessions to moderate ones.

team high effort cadence

Good operators know the cadence of their team and know how to adjust their pace (either accelerating or decelerating) to meet the goals of the organization.

On the other side, bad operators just merely proxy organizational goals to their teams without calibrating the workloads to fit the team's cadence.

team overwork

This strategy inevitably ends up failing. Either by forcing the team to push too hard for overextended periods without sufficient recovery sessions or by slowing the pace so much that the activity falls into stagnation and closing the gap for more intense efforts becomes just too hard.

6. Keep your team's efforts always under control

Overtraining occurs when a person exceeds their body's ability to recover from strenuous exercise. Overtrained people don't just cease to make progress, but also begin to lose strength and fitness.

Most athletes are well aware of this common phenomenon. To avoid the risk of overtraining all PRO athletes train with tech devices that monitor in real-time the intensity of their effort.

Knowing their numbers while training enables them to track and measure performance, reduce guesswork, and ultimately improve.

Overtraining is to athletes what burnout is to knowledge workers.

Likewise, there's no denying the benefits of operating your team with more data to avoid burnout and slump in performance. However, for knowledge workers, things are a bit trickier since there are no obvious quantitive ways to measure efforts.

To overcome this issue operators need to perform regular check-ins with all their team members on a specific basis. By doing so, they ensure there are no signs of overreaching and no one's left behind.

One-on-ones, quick team polls/surveys, and daily check-ins are all great and simple ways to close the feedback loop and to measure team members' levels of stress, effort, and morale.

Having this constant feedback loop will not just inform your strategy and help you planning workloads more effectively, but it will also help you prevent some undesirable issues such as a high-performing person going into burnout or worse, leaving your company.

Conclusions

To wrap up, here are some final thoughts and conclusions:

  1. Some categories of creators are on starting to resemble more the characteristic of PRO athletes. Learning how to hire, manage, motivate and retain these smart and leveraged people is the key to operational success.
  2. For much of history, standardization of process and control was the key leverage to high-performing teams. The information and knowledge work has flipped most of the incentives of that model. Going forward the best operators will be the ones who, more like coaches on the sideline in a big game, will learn how to motivate, operate and their teams toward excellence.
  3. While we have a century of experience, we don't have much to manage people in this type of new world. If you're for the first time in this new role, it's hard and it can be daunting, just focus on the fundamentals that we did cover here:

    • Maximize context by keeping the information flow as open and transparent as possible

    Understand your team members' TRM and act accordingly

    • Learn how to prevent disconnection and consolidate perspectives regularly
    • Don't hire too fast at the cost of reducing your talent density
    • Know your team's cadence then explore min and max efforts and create rooms to align your team's effort with the goals of your organization
    • Close the feedback loop by monitoring your team's effort on a regular basis: one-on-ones, survey/polls, daily check-ins are all tools in your arsenal
  4. Don't forget that this is very culture-based. What works for your current team, might not work for you next. Learn the most successful patterns, then adapt to the circumstances.
  5. We're seeing modern organizations starting to adapt the operator-coach role regardless of their (remote) work configurations. However, if you're managing a fully distributed or hybrid team everything we listed here is 2x more important. Operating distributed teams requires operators 2x better along every single dimension listed above. Beware of the gap.