Managing your Management: High Leverage and High Velocity

4 minutes of reading to outsmart your day

I once worked for a very large retail client located outside the mainstream tech talent pool. As I brought with me experience from Amazon and a variety of companies in the Bay Area, I had a unique perspective to add to the mix of leadership that for the most part had come up within the company with little outside influence. One of the senior leaders of the company invited me to be open about my experiences and catalyze change.

Starting a new job, I practice two-ears-one-mouth (an article for another day), so I started by listening to the differences and understanding their origin, prior to taking him up on his invitation to speak. The experience reminded me of the lessons from Andy Grove’s canonical “High Output Management”.

The role of leading Product Managers, or possibly any mid-level Managerial role but I’ll stick to what I know, can be summarized as providing leverage and results against the strategic vision of the business. That’s a loaded statement; books have been written exploring the definition of these terms. Today we will explore the concepts of leverage and velocity.

Start with some succinct definitions approximating Mr. Grove’s more thorough explorations:

Work is the time, including the individual time, and especially the meeting time you spend with others, that you invest in your job.

Output is the amount of value you derive from that work that supports the strategic vision.

Output in a direction that does not support the strategy only counts if it helps you find a right direction that does. That is failing-fast (an article for another day). Everything else is just waste.

Leverage then, is the practice of generating more output for the same work.

You may be amazed at how often this simple principle is lost in the day-to-day shuffle of our working lives. It is one of those pearls of leadership that is easier said than done.

While observing this company I was amazed to find standing business review meetings were occurring daily to keep tabs on low-level tactical results. These meetings included roughly 50 people across 4 layers of the organization, from senior leaders down to individual contributor campaign managers. Very little of note was accomplished in these meetings other than assuring that individual contributors were, in the words of one of them, “Constantly preparing just in case a VP asks me what happened to conversion rate yesterday.” Few decisions were made, very little detail was covered or addressed in a constructive way.

Preparation for this meeting demanded work, lots of it. Like half of every day, for many of the Campaign Managers supporting the business. This activity may have served a purpose (clarity of execution, control of the business), but it did not produce business value towards growing the business. It did not produce output aligned with the strategy. That same person confessed they had barely any time to grow the business, and in fact had not done a creative optimization or landing page test on a 7-figure keyword campaign in more than a year (if you know Paid Search, your jaw just hit the floor).

Contrast that to a more recent experience. We moved a similar meeting to a weekly cadence and pushed the details and execution down to the people who could do something about it. Leadership gathered in a smaller group, and focused on learning and leading, rather than doing.

The shift was huge, not only for output, but also for valuable intangibles, such as morale, and happiness and creativity, and ownership. Our Campaign Managers started digging into questions that mattered so that they could tell VPs they added value, why, and how – it was a drastic shift from the previous operating context.

If you want to up your game, try this exercise. Take a week to log your own activities and assess your own work and resulting output, and classify it as high or low-leverage.

You might discover you don’t really even know if you can measure if the output is aligned with the strategy – many get caught here. This is a terrific place to start, and to get right. Is your strategy clear and relatable? Is progress measurable? Do you have a (written) strategy?

You may find you are out of balance, spending too much time on low-leverage work. Find ways to shed the low-leverage work, and invest more in the high-leverage work. Can you train or empower others? Can you shed low-impact responsibility, or minimize the overhead it demands?

You may discover that much of the meeting time you spend is actually redundant or slowing things down and would be better-addressed through delegation. Find ways to influence others to give you leverage, while allowing them to work at full speed. This touches on our next principle.

Velocity is the practice of generating moreoutput with less real-world time passing by.

Teams that are fully-empowered to make their own decisions without waiting on others, tend to continue to work and produce output without delay – they work at high velocity. Teams that end up waiting for decisions to be made by others tend to get roadblocked – they work at low velocity. There is a tradeoff here.

This tradeoff can be thought of something like torque and horsepower. Some functions can afford to operate at lower velocity because they provide so much leverage, like a tractor. HR and recruiting, and finance are traditional examples. They provide leverage for the core business.

Other functions tend to drive the core business value and should be optimized to work at maximum velocity, like a race car. Core product development, customer relationship management, and sales are good examples.

Amazon does an amazing job of balancing these two trade-offs through their “two-pizza teams.” Each team has enough tactical latitude to execute at high velocity, and strategic alignment checks and balances that they provide high leverage through their managerial touch points.

Agility is the ability to alter direction usefully and meaningfully in response to changing conditions.

Change is hard, change is expensive, and change is (sometimes) necessary. We should embrace it, but in today’s environment especially, with all the focus on “failing fast,” agility is often mistaken for haste, as in haste makes waste. The first question I find useful to ask is “what changed?” Then the usual follow-up why? Why? Why…? If nothing changed, or we don’t know what changed, then how will we know if one solution is better than another?

Understanding the context driving the change helps balance the value vs. the cost of the change to be made. A racecar does not win by maxing out acceleration and g-forces wantonly, driving willy nilly all throughout the infield. Races are won by staying on the track and navigating the competition within the rules of the race. (Even if you bend them a little now and again; Ahem, Valentino Rossi).

So, let’s wrap all that up. Get clear on your strategy,  then spend as much time as you can on high-leverage work, while setting up your teams to provide a purposeful balance of leverage and velocity. Sounds easy, right?

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