The One Minute Manager

Two for One

I had been thinking about a popular management book I read years ago, The One Minute Manager, and wanted to see how well it had held up. But it is 2023, and some new AI technologies are making the news every day. With this in mind, I have also included a conversation I had with OpenAIs ChatGPT regarding this book.

In this post you get a “two for one”: both my thoughts on a classic management book, and a little insight into the latest AI technology.

A Business Fable

The One Minute Manager (Blanchard and Johnson, 1982) was already a classic when I read it years ago. At the time, I was new to management and was trying to figure out how I could be an effective manager. I already knew that managing people is not the same as writing code!

I recently reread this book to see how well it had held up. It is quite short, so I was able to power through it in a weekend.

The book is written as a “business fable”, a fictional story that illustrates lessons from the business world. In this case, the book relates the story of a young man who is trying to determine why a particular manager is considered so effective. As the book progresses, the man interviews the manager and his subordinates and discovers the keys to the managers success.

The title comes from the fact that this process works so well that the manager has to spend only a minute catching up with each of the team members.

I wont keep you in suspense. The story is short, and the lessons boil down to:

  1. Set clear expectations for the people on your team.
  2. Give them timely feedback (positive or negative).

This advice is good. It is also so fundamental that it is common knowledge for any experienced manager. Perhaps the advice was more radical in its time, but I suspect that this was always intended for more junior managers who, like me, were trying to figure out the basics.

Overly Simplified

At the time I initially read this, I did not have enough experience to critique the book. As I reread it today, a fundamental flaw jumps out. It isnt that the advice is wrong. The problem is that the advice is woefully inadequate.

So much more is required to be a successful, effective manager. For example: How do you recruit and on-board? How do you deal with personnel issues? How do you determine priorities and set goals? What do your internal and external customers need from you and your team? When and how do you change your technologies and processes? This book barely scratches the surface.

Even if you narrow the focus down to the topics addressed in the book, setting expectations and providing feedback, there is a glaring omission. The author assumes that, once expectations are set, the team knows what to do, with only an occasional minute of feedback required. In my experience, this is rarely true.

I have spent significant time over the past decade training (or arranging training), coaching and mentoring my teams to help them succeed. Some, but not all, of this has to do with the large amount of hiring and on-boarding my teams have done. Another factor is the constant need for engineering teams to update their technologies and processes. I have also transitioned quite a few engineers into management tracks, which is (as mentioned above) not at all the same as writing code.

In all of the situations, guidance and assistance is reasonable, before you can expect folks to be able to meet expectations.

The Experience Divide

How you ensure that the people on your teams can meet or exceed expectations breaks down into two general categories.

You can ask your more experienced people if they understand the expectations and need anything. Depending upon their backgrounds, they may have specific needs or questions. This is a normal advantage with senior folks: they are much more likely to know what they need to succeed.

This doesn’t mean they can succeed without any assistance. Dont assume that senior folks never require help. Rather, you should take their requests seriously, whether for more specific information, training, or mentoring. Even if they are unsure of exactly what they are missing, they are much more likely to at least understand how to resolve this challenge.

More junior folks, on the other hand, are less likely to know what they need to succeed. This is exactly what makes them junior. When you are setting up less experienced people with expectations, whether they are new hires, or just new in their positions, you need a plan that will guide them down a successful path.

Sink or Swim

There is another school of thought on this, that of “sink or swim”. The theory behind this is that the smartest and most motivated folks will figure out how to succeed (swim) and the others will fail (sink). With this approach you might provide some general training, tools, and resources, but you dont need to coach or mentor new folks. This is popular in some of the larger consulting, law, and finance companies.

This works to varying degrees in companies that can ingest a large number of people, and let the smart, hard-driving folks rise to the top, even if it means they step over the bodies of other people along the way. This does not work well at all for engineering teams where teamwork, camaraderie, technical skills, and deep domain knowledge play such a key role in individual and organizational success. Ive seen “sink or swim” attempted on engineering teams, but never successfully.

Help Ensure Success

I dont believe that The One Minute Manager intended to present a “sink or swim” approach, but by leaving out any discussion of assistance, it inclines in that direction.

Providing clear expectations, and regularly following up with feedback, are just a few of the many components of good management. Dont stop there. For every requirement you present, whether they are day-to-day elements of a role or long-term goals, ensure that your people have the information, resources, and training they need to successfully meet or exceed them.

A Conversation with GPT on The One Minute Manager

Like so many others, Ive been having fun taking GPT for a test drive to see what it can do.

I query GPT on most of my blog topics, just to see what it spits out. I thought Id share the results for this one, in case you haven’t had a chance to play with it yourself. Note that it is relatively easy to gain access to GPT at this point in time, but the system is overwhelmed, so reliable availability is getting harder.

My initial question: 

Give me a review of “The One Minute Manager”

GPTs response:

The One Minute Manager is a classic business book written by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson. The book presents a simple and effective management style that emphasizes setting clear goals, providing clear and immediate feedback, and empowering employees to take responsibility for their own performance. The book is written in a story format, making it an easy and enjoyable read. Many readers find the book’s tips and techniques to be practical and applicable to their own work environments. Overall, The One Minute Manager is a valuable resource for anyone looking to improve their management skills and create a more productive and positive work environment.

GPT is a conversational bot, so you can follow up your questions. It generally remembers your context. Note that I have a typo in my question (“to” rather than “too”), but GPT still responds correctly.

First follow-up question:

Is the book useful or is the advice to trite?

GPTs response

The One Minute Manager is considered by many to be a useful and practical guide to management. The book’s simple and straightforward approach to setting goals, providing feedback, and empowering employees makes it easy to understand and apply in a real-world setting. The tips and techniques presented in the book are based on solid management principles and have been proven to be effective by many readers.

However, some critics argue that the book’s advice may be too simplistic and that it oversimplifies the complexities of managing people and organizations. Some people also say that the book may be too general and that it does not offer specific solutions to the unique challenges faced by different types of organizations or industries. Despite this, many people find the book’s advice to be valuable and practical.

Second follow-up question:

Is there a better, more modern book that you can recommend?

GPTs response

There are many modern books on management and leadership that offer valuable insights and strategies for improving performance in the workplace. Here are a few examples of highly regarded books that have been published in recent years:

“Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” by Daniel H. Pink: This book offers a new perspective on motivation, arguing that the traditional “carrot-and-stick” approach is not always effective. Instead, Pink argues that people are motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

“Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity” by Kim Scott: This book offers a new approach to leadership, emphasizing the importance of being both direct and caring with employees.

“Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t” by Simon Sinek: This book explores the concept of “tribal leadership” and how leaders can create a sense of belonging and trust within their teams.

“The 5 Levels of Leadership: Proven Steps to Maximize Your Potential” by John C. Maxwell: This book explores the different levels of leadership and provides practical strategies for developing your leadership skills.

“The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life” by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander: This book explores the idea that the way we think about our work and our lives can be transformed by seeing them as opportunities for creative expression.

These are just a few examples of modern books on management and leadership that offer valuable insights and strategies. It’s worth noting that many of these books have a different approach and may be more suitable for different people and different scenarios.

State of the Art for Chat Robots

I (and GPT) can continue down this path indefinitely. The results are fascinating. You can see why folks are both amazed and worried about the possibilities.

Currently, the technology seems able to provide mostly useful high-level answers. But I have not yet seen it provide particularly insightful results. I believe this will change over time. As the AI model ingests more data, it will only improve. Someday we may consult AIs like GPT as readily as we Google for answers today.

One final note: As I was logging in to ChatGPT to query it for this blog, it presented me with a Captcha, to verify that I am not a robot. I love the irony.