Jay Hoffmann

Books, movies, and code


#19: Managing the what

I have found that a lot about managing people comes down to trust. Earning, keeping it, directing it. And I guess, subconsciously or not, I have been collecting some articles over the past few months about how to give a team autonomy while still driving and focusing on accountability. So this is just a reference for those articles as they start to congeal in my mind.

My unified theory on how this applies to management is still a work in progress, but I can start with an initial insight from Paul Taylor.

People are downstream of the system

And that’s a critical observation. Individuals in an organization are undeniably influenced by the systems and processes that are all around them. Often, when it seems that these processes are breaking down, it can actually just be an indicator of a deeper systemic issue.

First, look at your systems with a critical ye. What you’re really looking for is patterns. What appears to be happening over and over. Where are the most common breakdowns in communications. These are gaps, and are great starting points. These recurring issues represent gaps and serve as excellent initial areas for improvement.

But also, attack the why and make sure it’s shared. One strategy is to Manage the What, Not the How. This approach encourages clear alignment around shared goals through transparency. . It requires leaders to focus on defining the objectives and desired outcomes without micromanaging the specific methods by which the team members achieve these results.

The key to exceptional management is to get great at defining the “what”. As a leader, you need to know how to create alignment, how to clarify what you expect, and how to communicate all of it.

Clarity in communication and expectations sets the stage for a team’s success. When leaders excel in explicating the “what” – the objectives, targets, and benchmarks – they provide a clear direction for the team to follow, a clarity that enables the team to understand the purpose behind their work and align their efforts accordingly.

There are nuances to this approach. There might need to be greater control over the how for team members that struggle to collaborate or are more junior. But on teams comprised of more senior, experienced individuals, the strategy of managing the “what” can be adopted as a systemic approach, empowering team members to leverage their expertise and take initiative. By establishing clear goals, leaders can trust their teams to determine the most effective “how” – the processes, techniques, and strategies – to reach those goals. In doing so, leaders encourage innovation and drive accountability through autonomy.

All of which is tied up rather well by another article I have read, which extends the Cathedral and Bazaar metaphor to management. And I think it most clearly articulates the vision I have for myself as a leader.

The bazaar manager is like the organizer of the bazaar. Leaders in this style tend to have a broad vision, a flexible plan, and a flat network of roles and responsibilities for the team. The manager acts as the facilitator, the coach, and the enabler of the team’s work, defining goals and objectives and providing guidelines, feedback, and resources, while empowering the team to define their own tasks, processes, and standards, encouraging them to explore and innovate.

As a facilitator, the bazaar manager does not dictate each move but rather sets the stage for innovation and creativity. The managers role here is to provide clear goals and objectives-the what-while giving some latitude to the team to approach problems in their own unique ways.

It is a form of leadership that trusts in the capabilities of the team members and their ability to collaborate effectively. And so trust remains at the center of it all.


Chapter 34 of East of Eden begins like this:

A child may ask, “What is the world’s story about?” And a grown man or woman may wonder, “What way will the world go? How does it end and, while we’re at it, what’s the story about?”

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us…

It’s a short, precise, poignant chapter. Around 900 words later, it ends like this:

We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.

I want to write the whole chapter down and take it with me wherever I go.


Oliver Sacks with a prescient reflection on the irreproducibility of the human mind:

in contrast to a computer, that nothing is ever precisely repeated or reproduced; that there is, rather, a continual revision and reorganization of perception and memory, so that no two experiences (or their neural bases) are ever precisely the same. Experience is ever-changing, like Heraclitus’ stream. This streamlike quality of mind and perception, of consciousness and life, cannot be caught in any mechanical model — it is only possible in an evolving creature… One is not an immaterial soul, floating around in a machine. I do not feel alive, psychologically alive, except insofar as a stream of feeling — perceiving, imagining, remembering, reflecting, revising, recategorizing runs through me. I am that stream — that stream is me.