Micromanaging Angst

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I’ve always been concerned that some agile practices are applied even when they are not appropriate for a particular situation. I’ve called this Agile 101, learning the basics, that Alistair Cockburn calls the Shu level of learning ( Shu-Ha-Ri are the three levels). All too often some agile practice or misunderstood principle will be inappropriately used.

One of the tenets of managing self-organizing teams has been the Agile mantra of “don’t micromanage.” The question in my mind is whether or not this always applies. Agile leaders are admonished, I’ve said this myself, to create a clear vision, establish appropriate boundaries, and facilitate team collaboration. And then, get out of the way! There are certainly circumstances when this style of management is appropriate, but is it always?

What got me thinking about this paradox of micro- versus macro-management was reading Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Steve Jobs (a great read by the way). Jobs was in many ways a micro manager of extreme proportions. When it came to product development he inserted himself into excruciatingly detail design decisions. There was seemingly no in-between with Jobs—it was either wonderful or crap. Product review meetings with Bill Gates were also legendary—and he was noted for uncovering the slightest flaw in thinking about new products.

So would Jobs have been categorized as a good agile leader? If not, are we offering people the right agile leadership model? There is no doubt that Jobs build one of the most successful technology companies ever. Gates built another. This appears to be one of the paradoxes of good management, and whenever there is a paradox, or a seeming one, looking at it from a different angle often helps.

If we take a close look there appear to be some interesting differences between forms of micromanaging. Jobs focused on product, not process. Jobs learned from his father to focus on every aspect of the product, even the insides that were hidden from view. Jobs obsessed about every detail, often driving his teams to try version, after version, after version (iterative design in the extreme). In many ways, Jobs played the roles of product owner and customer, not a manager. While Jobs obviously had managerial authority over the staff, and used this authority, his passion was about creating great products. There is little doubt that Jobs’ passion about products made Apple into a stellar business success.

When we think of micromanaging, the “bad” kind, we are usually thinking about it in the context of managing the “how,” the detail list of tasks and endless focus on process. While adaptive, agile leadership should focus on vision, engaging, and boundaries—it should also be about “product” management, or leadership—about creating outstanding, innovative products. The first part is macro-management, the second micro.

So when we talk about micromanaging, we need to separate the “bad” kind from the “good.” Which also raises the next questions, “Is there some other good to be extracted from the bad?

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