Friday, March 31, 2017

The Micromanagement Disease

One of the many advantages of being an Agile Coach is that I get to interact with folks across the organization. I get to observe how developers work and how the folks leading and/or managing them behave. My organization has managers and directors of varying degrees of maturity. They also possess their own unique styles of management. In a development org where there are over 50 folks in management positions, invariably you find the world's most popular management anti-pattern - Micromanagement.



Symptoms

Our mature Agile implementation, which empowers teams to manage themselves acts as a great deterrent for micromanagement. That being said, having an Agile organization does not imply micromanagement cannot exist. Practices that are individual-focused, rather than team-focused are clear symptoms of micromanagement. These symptoms can include -
  • Stand-ups that are status reports as opposed to opportunities for the team to collaborate.
  • Focus on individual metrics over team metrics
  • Multiple status requests all day, every day
  • Manager/Lead needs to be in every meeting and ratify every decision
  • There is an "Owner" for the process and for architecture
  • Team has no involvement in making commitments, leads/managers make them
  • Product Architecture is dictated to developers and only "Architects" can change/question it
  • Team members do not make suggestions for improvement out of fear or apathy
There are many more symptoms, but the last one on the list here is the one that shows that the disease is in its most advanced stages. When folks doing the actual work, feel that they have no business voicing concerns or suggesting improvements, the management battle and conceivably the project is already lost. After all, people doing the work are the ones who know the problems they are facing and often the best at coming up with ideas to remedy those problems. Another important thing to note - Micromanagement is not just limited to Managers, it extends and is often exhibited to a greater extent by Architects and Tech Leads. These folks have often earned their stripes and seen code from other developers that makes them firmly believe that they can do things better. If you are "living with" an architecture, your Architect is probably a micromanager.

When folks doing the actual work, feel that they have no business voicing concerns or suggesting improvements, the management battle and conceivably the project is already lost.

Diagnosis



Managers and Architects are not bad people. Most are trying to do what they truly believe is in the best interest of the products and the organization they are involved in. Why, then do they exhibit the negative symptoms of micromanagement? I believe that there are two underlying causes for the symptoms.

  1. Fear that employees will not do the right thing
  2. Fear that upper management will not do the right thing
When managers are afraid their direct reports or the people they are leading are not going to do the right thing, the symptoms of micromanagement emerge. Managers might believe that their employees will not do the right thing for a couple of reasons. The employees might not have earned the trust of that manager that they are not 'lazy' and can actually make progress without multiple status reports. The manager might have been a great 'doer' who was promoted and firmly believes that she/he can solve problems better than the people currently doing the work. In either case, the result is the same. The manager maintains the firm belief that the project will only be successful if they are intimately involved in every detail and decision. They are only doing what they believe is the right thing to do, regardless of how unhealthy it might be for the overall system.



When mid-level managers believe that their superiors do not have their back and will not do the right thing by supporting them, they, in turn, transfer the lack of trust downstream. Since the middle managers are being asked for regular updates and are not being trusted, they do the same thing to the people they are leading. There are definitely cases where the middle managers absorb the pressure and don't transfer it downstream. Those managers, in my opinion, are the ones that need to take higher positions in organizations. When a middle manager's boss does not trust them, it also means that they have to prove their indispensability. This leads managers to be more hands-on and involved in the details and hence, not living up to their own potential. They respond to the lack of trust by being a micromanager that needs to have all the details available to them at all times in order to answer the questions of their superiors on the spot. When managers (especially the inexperienced ones), believe that their superiors will not do the right thing, they themselves start doing the wrong things. 

Cure

I wish I could say that I know the cure, but the cure has to be very context specific. If our diagnosis is correct, there is a trust issue somewhere in the organization. Lack of trust more often than not also manifests itself via fear. Fear to innovate, fear to try process improvements, fear to change or abandon prescribed architecture, even fear to speak up at times. How we get rid of that fear would depend a lot on the organization and the willingness of the people that make up that organization to try.

ask the question - "Do you feel that we are doing the right things and do you feel you have the freedom to change the things we are doing wrong?"

One way would be to establish and promote a culture of trust where everyone is encouraged and trusted to try to improve things every day. An approach would be to start at the line level and ask the question - "Do you feel that we are doing the right things and do you feel you have the freedom to change the things we are doing wrong?". If the answer is no, find out if it is just the direct manager that has the trust issue or is it systemic and goes up the chain to the highest levels. Very few will argue that fear and lack of trust is bad. Hopefully we can, through some tough conversations, drive consensus that we are going to trust the people we have hired. More so, when the symptoms of micromanagement emerge, we will diagnose where they are coming from and apply the appropriate cure to re-establish trust and remove fear from the equation.

Follow Up

We believe that it is our job, as managers, to make the project successful. When in truth, it is our job to help our employees make their project successful.

No one sets out to be a bad manager or a micromanager. There are conditions that lead some of us in that direction. For many of us, it is the fact that we ourselves were such good "doers" that we do not trust that our employees can do things well without our help. We believe that it is our job, as managers,  to make the project successful. When in truth, it is our job to help our employees make their project successful. If we trust and empower our employees to do the right thing, not just the current project, but any project the team undertakes will have a high probability of success.


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