Inwards, Outwards, and Holistics

As already discussed, Managers are not evil. They’re often just stuck in translation hell where they need to say one thing in one way to one team and say the EXACT same thing to another team in a different way. This constant verbal tapdancing looks sketchy to you, the Average Joe, and you start to wonder, “Hey what does that guy do all do in those meetings anyway? Do he do any ACTUAL WORK?”


There are all sorts of intimidating titles surrounding the management caste. Engineering Manager, Senior Engineering Manager, Director of Enginering, Vice President of Engineering, Chief Technology Officer. While these names are useful in determining where a individual lies in the food chain, the names are merely hints as to what that person actually cares about… and you should care what they care about. Your boss and your bosses boss effectively sign your paycheck every two weeks and that means food. Sure, you can leave and go somewhere else, but there’s another manager there waiting for you with their own obscure agenda.

There are three distinct classes of managers, each with their own agenda. The common names for these classes are first line manager, middle manager, and executive/senior manager. Again, these names do a good job of giving you a clue where your manager sits on an organizational chart, but they don’t tell you what they actually do… how they are motivated… we need a different set of names for that. We need a set of names which don’t confuse us with an implied hierarchy.

INWARDS: These types of managers are generally responsible for a small team of folks working on a single product or technology. An Inward manager’s vision is focused on their team… what and how they are doing. While they’re aware there are other things going on in the organization, they don’t tend be involved with external shenanigans unless it directly affects their team.

HOLISTICS: Traditionally the middle layer of management. The vision of Holistics is across the organization. While they are likely managers of managers, their vision is across the company. They are constantly trying to figure out what the hell is going EVERYWHERE in the organization. This gives the impression that they are spread thin and/or constantly busy and they are, there’s a ton of information moving around in your average sized company.

What Holistics are looking for is strategic advantage. If they’ve done their job, they’ve hired rock star Inwards to get the products built to specification and on time so that they can focus on figuring out what to build next and how to get the resources to do so.

OUTWARDS: The senior manager. VPs, CEOs, and what not. The biggest misconception regarding Outwards is what they care about. You’d think their #1 priority would be the care and feeding of the company. Wrong. The well being of the company is, ultimately, the responsibility of the Holistics. They’re the ones who are spending all the time sniffing around the hallways, gathering internal competitive intelligence, and enacting new policies.

Outwards’ vision is focused on the outside world. They care about the public perception of the company, the company’s relationship with its customers, the financial community, the world. That’s why they’re never at headquarters, they’re off telling other people what a great job all those Holistics and Inwards are doing. This is not to suggest that Outwards don’t care about what’s going on inside the company on a day-to-day basis, it’s just not the their job to maintain it even though they are accountable for it. Tough gig.

Now that you’ve got a rough idea of the different management types, let’s talk about how it specifically affects you:

– While I’ve indicated how real world titles relate to these classes, they may not translate to your manager. You might be working for a manager who thinks he’s Holistic when he really should be Inward. This means they’re out combing the hallways looking for strategic advantage when they really should be paying attention to you, the senior engineer who has indicated, “There is no way in hell this product is going to ship on time”.

– Holistics are constantly searching for strategic advantage. There is a spectrum here with “advantage for the team” on one side and “advantage for the manager” on the other. Holistic managers who spend all the time looking for advantage for themselves are called “players”. These people are going to screw you at some point.

Similarly, Inwards who have been forced into the Holistic role are also going to screw you, but not because of any action on their part, but due to their inaction. They are Inwards, they don’t care about the political intrigue over in Building 27, they want to design and ship product, they want to dive into the details. Problem is, the political intrigue over in Building 27 will ultimately determine that your product is irrelevant. Now you’re out of a job because your manager’s manager didn’t attend that cross-functional meeting. Sorry about that.

– The idea of micromanagement is easier to understand with these classes. When you’re being micromanaged, it means two things. First, you are doing a bunch of work that you feel is unnecessary. Second, you feel the person asking you to do is being unreasonable. You’re right on both counts. Busy work is usually the result of poor planning by someone who ISN’T DOING THEIR JOB. Maybe it’s an Outward who gets panicky at the end of release cycle and starts acting like an Inward. Who knows? The point is, a manager is crossing from one responsibility threshold to another and that just confuses everyone. WHY AM I SENDING A STATUS REPORT TO CEO?

– The distinctiveness of these different management classes gets very blurry in smaller companies. The Holistics tenancies tend to be absorbed into both the Inwards and the Outwards. Translation: middle management vanishes in start-ups.

– Once an Inward manager has glimpsed/groked the responsibility (read: power) of the Holistics and the Outwards, they’re going to be motivated to head in that direction for some duration of time between right now and the rest of their lives. Recognizing that your manager is ON this quest is important because, well, they might not be there when you come in to work tomorrow. Plan accordingly.

Conversely, many seasoned Inward managers might be ex-Holistics and Outwards. This means they played game and decided to bail or maybe they were chewed up and spit out. Personally, I think these type of Inwards are phenomenal employees because they have a discernable agenda. Holistic managers and Inwards transitioning to Holistics have a lot more enthusiasm, but they’re hungry for your job. This is also a good thing, but it means you’ve got to run a lot faster.

4 Responses

  1. actmodern 21 years ago

    Very insightful writing. No really. I especially agree on the point that busy work, that comes out of nowhere, is the result of poor planning. Unfortunately in this economy if one can find a job that pays well, one tends to put up with the politics and play virtual Inward as an employee when he has to.

  2. John Whitlock 21 years ago

    Good article, but isn’t Inward, Holistic, and Outward just new names for Lower, Middle, and Upper management?

    I agree on the small company analysis – I’m in a small company transitioning to a mid-sized company, and having a difficult time of it. As a small company, we called the divisions “Engineers” and “Overhead”. Everyone who wasn’t working directly on projects was overhead, from the president / founder to the administrative assistants. We debated for a full month about hiring someone to occupy the receptionist’s desk (eventually we justified it for security reasons).

    Now, we have to add layers of management, because 50 engineers can’t self-organize the way 10 could, and the projects are getting bigger. However, the old distinction remains, and the engineers start grumbling about the managers doing nothing but adding to their ranks monthly. To make it worse, when someone is slapped with a Lead Engineer label, they are eventually yanked out of the engineering side of the building and put in the management side.

    It’s good to see where this is going, even if management may not realize it yet.

  3. Kindred 21 years ago

    Effective managers can make even bad engineers look good. Ineffective managers can/will make even good engineers look bad.

  4. I think the root of the managerial problem is this: everyone who becomes a manager came from somewhere else. That is, they actively decided to move up the ranks from worker to manager. This implies that they want to continue to ascend. Drawing conclusions, if your manager is any good HE OR SHE WILL BE PROMOTED. And he or she will take the promotion, saddling you with a new manager, one who is either moving up– ie, has no experience and will have to learn the job from whole cloth– or is moving laterally from within or outside the organization, implying incompetence. There are exceptions, of course. But many, many managers fall prey to the old “promotion to the level of incompetence” rule. They move up until they’re dumb, and then they sit, FUCKING WITH YOUR SHIT.