Hang with me for a little while on this one. We all have horror stories about working for terrible micromanagers. I have a few doozies I share whenever the moment is right. Many of us wear our experiences working for evil micromanagers as a badge of honor. These monsters serve as neon warning signs of everything we don’t want to be.
An entire generation of managers have grown up vowing never to succumb to the devil that is micromanagement. Myself included. Our teams will have the freedom to be creative. They’ll have the flexibility to pursue projects any way they want. They’ll never feel the pain of being told exactly what to do and exactly how to do it. But is there a cost? Is there a price to pay for empowerment, autonomy, and flexibility? Are there unintended consequences? Is it possible we may over-rotate – away from micromanagement to some other monster?
This week I’m going to touch on a delicate subject. I’m certainly not about to advocate for micromanagement, but I am going to explore some of the traps I see managers falling into because of the blind pursuit of absolute flexibility and empowerment. I’ll provide recommendations for how a little bit of hands-on management, when done purposefully, can preserve the benefits of empowerment, autonomy and flexibility, and avoid the hits to performance we can’t afford.
Tell me if any of these scenarios hit home for you:
You give your team a project to manage. You provide direction up front about the desired outcome, timing, budget and other relevant details. High level direction, but certainly enough for the team to work with. Three or four weeks pass, the deadline is rapidly approaching, you ask for a review of progress, only to discover, the project is completely off the rails – now you’re in big trouble.
A senior-level person joins your team, they have all the credentials and a ton of experience. When the first big project comes along, you want to offer a lot of space for them to operate and be creative. They’re experienced after all. With the deadline bearing down, you do a status review only to be shocked by how “off” everything is. You need to jump in at the last minute to save the project which causes a lot of frustration and some measure of embarrassment to both you and the new manager.
You’ve been pulled onto a strategic project and its seriously hampered your ability to manage the team like you normally would. You’ve been acting as an individual contributor way more than you probably should. Because you haven’t been paying close enough attention, several projects have been operating for weeks without a meaningful check point. When you finally have time to check in, you discover things are way worse than you thought. Projects are behind, quality has suffered, people are unhappy. Now you have to dive in and repair.
Some of you may read these and say, “well you’re just not hiring the right people.” That’s easy enough to say, but I think it’s an overly simplistic and somewhat naïve perspective frankly. My experience tells me that teams are made of people, and people are inherently imperfect, so the strategy of just hiring better people is never the complete solution. Certainly, it’s not a solution to this problem specifically.
We all want to build great teams and hire great people – that’s an ever-present management goal – it doesn’t go away. It’s also not something that happens overnight. Most managers, myself included, are constantly in a state of transformation – taking a team from one place and building towards another. The real question is, how do you maximize empowerment, autonomy and flexibility for your teams while also ensuring great quality and results?
Here are a few techniques I’ve adopted over the years that improve the probability projects will be done with quality and stay on track without having to micromanage the entire way. Think of them as tiny bits of micromanagement at certain points of a project that provide the right guidance to ensure a quality result without sacrificing empowerment, autonomy and flexibility for the team.
I encourage my teams to include me at the very beginning stages of a projects. When we’re first building the basic skeleton and framework for the major deliverables. If we can agree on the core principles, outline and structure for the project, the probability of having a great outcome goes up significantly. I also find that this level of collaboration, at the outset, still allows for a lot of creativity and autonomy in how the team executes within that framework. Moreover, as the likelihood of success increases, the level of frustration that often comes from discovering a last minute disconnect, reduces as well.
My advice to managers is to get deeply involved in the first stage of a project rather than micromanaging the entire thing or removing yourself completely. You’ll find the overall quality of outputs will go up and the team will gain confidence as they execute creatively within a framework you’re aligned to.
It’s one thing to align in principle and another thing to align in practice. A source of great frustration for teams everywhere, is when they think they have alignment with the leader only to discover when the project has been delivered, that they weren’t as aligned as they thought. Everyone loses in this scenario, and it’s an extremely common occurrence. The leader, who didn’t have enough time to properly focus, nodded when she was presented the initial high-level direction. Then, in the final review, discovers she didn’t fully understand or appreciate the direction in the first place. The project is off the rails and everyone is frustrated.
To avoid this situation, I find it helpful to align up front on some actual examples or mockups of what the result will look like. I’ll often ask my team to look for examples of how other great companies have done something similar. If we can align at the very beginning on an outcome we all agree is great, the chances of success go up significantly. A little bit of “micromanagement” up front, frees everyone up to execute with confidence and creativity for the remainder of the project.
Many team members try to pursue big “tadaa” moments. In an effort to show they can be trusted to “own” big projects, they operate in isolation for days and weeks in anticipation of a big reveal. This approach, while well intentioned, is misguided. More often than not, projects that run in isolation like this, fail miserably in the so-called “tadaa” moment. I discourage this entire line of thinking and prefer my team members to work collaboratively with each other and with me. Rather than have a big reveal at the end, you and your team should be in sync the entire way through a project. This increases the likelihood of a quality results and shouldn’t be any less empowering for your team members.
It’s a mistake to equate empowerment and isolation, and many less experienced managers and contributors do this. It’s an important lesson for your team that you can be collaborative and empowered at the same time.
My advice to managers is to discourage the “tadaa” moment. Encourage your team to collaborate with you and with each other throughout the entire project to protect against it veering too far off course. I think you’ll find it has a positive impact on quality and engagement.
This is one I need to work on. If you want a truly collaborative environment, your team needs to be comfortable showing you unfinished work. This one is on you. If you overreact every time you see work in progress; if you create fear and tension for people, you’ll never get the level of collaboration you want. If your team fears you, they will operate in isolation for too long, they will hoard unfinished work, and you’ll get a lot last minute surprises with projects that have fallen off the rails. It’s easy to blame your team for this behavior, but you also need to look inwardly.
My advice to managers is to make yourself more approachable for early stage collaboration. Reduce the fear and anxiety and consequences of showing you unfinished or misdirected work so long as there is enough time budgeted to repair and redirect. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the improvements in quality and the overall reduction in stress and anxiety during projects.
We’ve all grown up loathing the very notion of micromanagement. But my observation is that some managers have over-rotated to the point where we are sacrificing quality in exchange for empowerment. I don’t think these things need to be mutually exclusive, but I do think there are some specific hands-on management techniques managers can apply to preserve the best parts of autonomy and empowerment while maximizing the probability that projects are executed on time and with quality. I appreciate this is a delicate subject and would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.