The Real Price of Micromanagement!

posted by Dilip on February 5, 2020

In my previous blog on Stopping Micromanagers I had exhorted about what micromanagers and the micromanaged can do to affect any change in the status quo. Although these tips are not always easy to implement, both sides working in collaboration can make a difference in how change can take place to benefit both sides and their organization.

In this blog I plan to showcase the dispositive and pernicious effects of micromanagement on an organization if it is not checked in time, using Boeing 737 Max 8 as a use case. Some may find it difficult to accept but most of today’s management ills stem from unchecked micromanagement, not knowing what management work is and does, and not knowing the difference between technical work and management work. In this blog I plan to shed some light on each of these areas and their interrelationships.

Management work Vs. Technical Work: Technical work can be defined as any activity that requires specialized skill in an area of work. Typical examples are bridge design, aircraft type certification, computer programming, circuit analysis, software development, copy writing, drafting a legal brief, patient diagnosis, and movie production, among others. The U.S. Department of Labor (DoL) lists nearly 15 million job categories that require specialized job skills that fuel this country’s labor market, which employs 160 million people.

Most jobs which require such skills start as individual contributors (ICs), whose main qualification for engaging in that job is their specialized technical skill. As they grow in their IC role and show promise they get a chance to become first-level manager. Although those who have no interest in becoming a manger can continue in their IC role which requires increasing responsibilities, their focus continues to be specific to their original area of expertise, albeit the impact of their work grows with their advancing career.   

What happens when an IC gets promoted to a first-level manager? This promotion is often misinterpreted by the new manager as a license for them to do more of what did before they got promoted for in the first place—apply their technical skill. This misconception is at the heart of how managers go on to become micromanagers.

A manager’s role is to efficiently manage resources: their team members, their own talent, time, budget, and resources for which they are responsible. This is management work. They fail to realize that being a good manager is yet another technical skill that they must now master. Although they do this willy-nilly their main focus continues to be their area of expertise. So, when a team member comes to them for guidance their instinctive response is to redo what the team member has done to show them how they would have done it, ignoring that their role has changed to be a manager now. This is not a manager’s job; their job is to define what that team member should do and let them do it their way unless it does not meet the manager’s clearly defined requirements. So, rather than focusing of setting up the requirements the manager focuses on the outcome that they would have created, thus vitiating their team member’s efforts to do their best and also ignoring the responsibilities of the very role they are now playing as a manager.

Thus begins the endless cycle of micromanagement. Instead, if the manager focuses on how to set up tasks with clear requirements, estimate the resources to complete the task, provide guidance when things get off-track, and mentor team members to grow in their skills, they have positioned themselves to be an effective manager and a worthy leader.

Management work takes knowing what that work is and taking the time to do that work and then doing the work that only they can do. A manager’s job is two-fold: Executing the four functions of managing, providing technical coaching for those in their team, and helping them solve the problems that they cannot themselves solve applying their higher expertise. The four functions of managing include, Leading, Planning, Organizing, and Setting up Controls. Each of these functions has activities that subsume that function. For example, the Leading function subsumes motivating, communicating, hiring, developing, decision-making, and selecting and developing people. A manager must understand each of these activities under their respective functions and focus on those activities. Anything outside of these is technical work.

The problem is that technical work manifests as something that requires urgent attention: an irate customer, a grounded plane, a failed test, a buggy release, a deviation from requirements, etc. When such a problem surfaces it also demands urgent response. This is where managers preempt their time and attention and take action to prevent further problems. For example, if the failed test is not immediately analyzed and rectified the product shipment is delayed, reflecting poorly on the manager. So, the manager jumps in and asks the team to take short-cuts to get the device re-tested with some expedient. Some hero emerges and figures out a way to get the test completed for shipping the product without analyzing or documenting what was done. If the manager himself intervenes to get this done—as often they do—they pat themselves on the back for averting a crisis. Thus begins the cycle of technical debt.

If, on the other hand, the manager had thought through this failure while setting up the requirements with careful planning and deliberations and had avoided it, he has done his job as a manager. He has failed in his role when he rushed the team to get the product out without adequate analysis, proper solution, and documentation for posterity. When a manager sets this precedent in how things get done—preempting management work with technical end-runs—they have set themselves as micromanagers. This approach now becomes the norm for the team on how management problems are dismissed by disposing them with technical end-runs. Soon, this becomes the organization’s culture.

Dealing with the Chasm: The dynamic interplay between technical debt and management debt is illustrated in Figure-1, which shows how management and technical debts feed each other in an endless cycle of vicious activity (read the illustration of Boeing 737 Max-8, below in this article).

Refer to the text

Let us examine the various elements of this important graphic. The vertical axis shows management levels from the first-level manager to the CEO. The horizontal axis shows how these managers actually spend their time in the mix of management and technical priorities.

The first level manager should spend 50% of their time in management work (the four functions described above and their respective activities that fall under them) and the other 50% doing technical work, which includes applying their technical expertise to guide others and to think through the deeper technical problems of the day that their team members struggle with.

In reality because of their predisposition to doing technical work—which is why they got promoted in the first place—they engage in doing technical work of the wrong kind—interfering with the team and redoing what they have done—thus ignoring the management work that piles up. Longitudinal studies over many years have shown that these managers (micromanagers) actually spend only about 10% of their time doing management work and 90%, doing technical work. Going up the ladder, the CEO, on the other hand, spends 50% of their time micromanaging or doing the wrong things instead of spending only about 10% of their time on such activities. Almost 90% of a CEO’s time should go into management activities and doing the work that only they can do.

As managers, all the way up to CEOs, follow the micromanaging trajectory shown as the red diagonal line on the left side of the rectangle they postpone doing their share of the management work. They are spending their time doing technical work that people well below their level of responsibility must do.

On the right side of that line is the trajectory shown in green followed by managers who do not micromanage and who play the role of a Leader-Coach as shown on that line. When they follow that trajectory, sufficient attention is spent on doing management work, which protects their organization from creating management debt (the middle gray chasm). Since this work continually gets postponed—or worse, never gets done—the debt piles up and fuels technical debt along the lines discussed before. Thus, management debt and technical debt feed on each other, leading to a death spiral, which if not caught in time can spell the demise of an organization, as we are now witnessing in the case of Boeing, the giant aircraft maker.

The Boeing 737 Max-8 Example: A good example of how deferred management work and micromanagement can result in a disastrous outcome is showcased in recent headlines on the Boeing 737 Max 8 and its MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) design. The original MCAS design had two sensors to signal a plane’s angle of attack, which the FAA certified.

In later flight testing the test pilot recommended a tweak to the MCAS design because of its large engines and the plane’s stall characteristics, which resulted in taking out the redundant sensor, leaving only one to detect the aircraft’s pitch, and then changing the maximum deflection of the horizontal stabilizer from 0.6 degrees in 10 seconds to 2.5 degrees in 10 seconds. Boeing’s micromanagers considered these changes “minor,” without communicating to the FAA since its original certification, a major management omission; as they were too focused on getting the technical aspects “right.”

Since the MCAS originally operated in the background mode the next decision by yet another group of micromanagers was to completely remove MCAS reference from the pilot’s manual, which was approved by the FAA, since it did not know about the software changes made without any management oversight and communication to the stakeholders. To further compound micromanagement, the service manuals were not revised with MCAS software updates, as Boeing continued delivering aircrafts with the revised MCAS changes; yet another management oversight. The upper management simply failed to focus on their management responsibilities because they were too busy micromanaging the various changes happening to the aircraft’s flight characteristics; a fatal mistake!

After the two crashes Boeing is now returning the MCAS to its original design, but all of this is too late. The product line is already shut down affecting 6,000 or more suppliers, in addition to all the lives already lost and hundreds of delivered planes grounded, causing the customer airlines to suffer huge losses. Boeing’s CEO has been summarily fired by its board. All of this is now rippling through the entire economy as people are getting laid-off. The price Boeing and everyone are now paying for this is incalculable. This is an egregious example of management debt cycle inevitably spiraling into a death cycle!

The failure here in view of the management process model we have developed in this discussion is that micromanaging engineers could not see beyond their own designs and their managers, in turn, did not put in place a process of reviews and communication (to the FAA and to the airlines) that could have prevented this major calamity. It was their management responsibility they failed to deliver on because they were too busy attending to the technical problems!

As the new year begins my advice to you as a career coach is to recognize the difference between management work and technical work, doing the right management work in your role, and doing the work that only you can do. If you follow this simple rule, you’ll be a great Leader-Coach and make your team wanting to work with you!

Good luck!