The Blessings of Micromanagement

Micromanagement can be defined as a management style characterized by the need for extreme control and attention to detail. In general, this style has a negative connotation, especially because the attention to details gives the employees of the manager in question a constant pressure – ‘is ​​it never good enough’, ‘is it never finished’? – and a perceived lack of freedom.

Extreme attention to detail also carries the risk of losing sight of the big picture and more important priorities. And, last but not least: work as such does not become more pleasant when people are ‘micromanaged’.
Is there nothing positive to report about micromanagement? It just depends how you look at it…

Eleven Madison Park
There is an interesting documentary series on Netflix: Seven Days Out. This 2018 series documents the events – and the accompanying excitement, setbacks and dramas – seven days leading up to a major event in sports, fashion and aerospace, among others. One of the episodes is devoted to Eleven Madison Park, at that time voted the best restaurant in the world and in possession of three Michelin stars. The owners, Chef Daniel Humm and General Manager Will Guidara explain that they are driven by the ambition to be the best restaurant in the world. The documentary records how they work in great detail to prepare the restaurant, seven days before its reopening after a renovation. Halfway through the episode, Guidara gives his view on their quality ambitions: “We see excellence as thousands of perfectly executed details. If you can focus on every single detail, and not on the whole, then you start to get somewhere.” To illustrate this, Guidara gives a concrete example: “Every plate in the restaurant is placed in such a way that the logo at the bottom of the plate is turned towards you”. In such a way that if you turn the plate over, you see the logo of the tableware neatly upright. Will Guidara says about this: “Does anyone notice? No. Why does it matter? It means that when we put up signs, we do it with more intention .

Intention as a driver for quality and perfection to a level that no one notices anymore. Except maybe that one person wondering what the tableware brand is… anyway, the micromanagement of the owners of Eleven Madison Park has created one of the most successful restaurants in the world.

Pixar Studios
Pixar Studios is also a good example of micromanagement. Pixar is one of the most successful film studios and an organization in which creativity and quality are embedded in the organizational culture. All aspects of every film are meticulously scrutinized and produced, from idea to realization. For example, production teams hold daily review meetings in which the development of an animation film is discussed. The team members are expected to assess the work of their colleagues in great detail and without restraint: what is wrong, what is missing, what is unclear in the animations? And every few months, the progress of production of the entire film is reviewed higher up in the organization. According to the same principle: what is not good, what is missing, how can it be improved? All this with one goal: “to make a great film, with great people”. Because that’s Pixar’s mission. And with results, because Pixar’s films are all blockbusters and have won many awards.

Thrive because of micromanagement
How come in these examples the teams and organizations do not perish because of micromanagement, but thrive because of it? That’s because micromanagement focuses on the quality of products and services – not the way people do their jobs.

Conscious culture
This requires a corporate culture in which it is clear to everyone that the quality of the end result is what matters most. Every aspect of the product or service is evaluated in detail and (continuously) improved. It also means a high degree of psychological safety: it is safe for people to speak out and experiment. Or to make mistakes. “Fail early, fail fast.” is one of Pixar’s mottos, because when it’s safe to make mistakes, progress is made faster.


You can micro-manage things, but not people
Quality is about details. And the higher the quality ambitions of your organization, the more attention should be paid to ever smaller details. In the case of a restaurant, it may concern the placement of the crockery, in an animation film it may be about the detail of a shadow in the drawing. Because extreme attention to the details of a product leads to extreme quality.

That is the area where micromanagement pays off. This can only be done sustainably in a working environment in which employees are involved in the ambitions of the organization and at the same time can give substance to their work in their own way. In other words: a thousand perfectly executed details give you distinctive character. People give up on people who try to micro-manage them. But things can micro-managed just fine.

Avoid the Beethoven mistake

Companies that have the most agility and resilience create differentiation. This requires responsive organizations that effectively anticipate changing (market) conditions and adapt organically. For this to be possible, a number of principles apply. These relate to employees, teams, departments and the way in which they work together. To become more responsive, a culture and behavioral change is often required. It is often assumed that realizing this change is closely related to structures and processes. But nothing is less true.

The Beethoven Mistake
In his book “Our Inner Ape”, biologist Frans de Waal discusses the relationship between the behavior of great apes and humans. He explains that for a long time people’s morals were explained by religion or culture and not by nature. Because by nature people would have no morals. But we now know that even great apes have a moral sense. According to De Waal, the earlier assumption arose out of confusion: because natural selection is a cruel and ruthless process of elimination, it was argued that it must produce cruel and ruthless creatures. In other words: the process is confused with the result. De Waal calls this ‘The Beethoven mistake’: Beethoven composed great and unparalleled music. You wouldn’t expect such a person to be unkempt and sleazy and living in a dirty and smelly house. Yet that was the case.

Confusion of process with result
In doing so, De Waal points out a fallacy that is often made in change projects: the tendency to develop structures or processes in the assumption that the intended behavioral change will arise naturally from this. But processes and structures are inconclusive about the success of cooperation between people.

Why is that?
Processes and structures work according to the laws of logic. You can set up a mechanical production process in such a way that the quality is statistically almost perfect. Six sigma is based on it. But people function according to ‘psychologica’ with their motivations, conditionings and (unconscious) beliefs.

As a result, collaboration in organizations is always a bit of a ‘black box’. You make agreements about objectives, responsibilities, tasks, way of working, et cetera. But just like with a football team, it is not yet certain how the match will develop and what the exact result will be. The outcome is largely determined by responsiveness: how events and setbacks along the way are dealt with.

Responsiveness and motivation
Effective behavioral change occurs when teams are given the space and freedom to determine the implementation of the plan themselves, based on a shared vision and goals. People are motivated to do this when their work matches their ambitions (am I doing what I want to do?) and talents (am I doing what I can do?). It is important that there is room for personal interpretation and a certain degree of autonomy.

Motivated employees connect easily, take responsibility and come up with solutions to problems themselves. As the production manager of a factory once put it: “If I let the employees focus on delivering the products to our customers on time, they are smart enough to order the necessary parts on time.”

Breeding ground to inspire change
It works the same way with behavioral change: the task of management is more facilitating than guiding. Aimed at the right breeding ground for change. One that brings people together and inspires change.

This requires managers to let go of control of the process and focus on the motivation of the people in the team and their mutual relationships. Employees need growth and inspiration and derive their meaning from the extent to which they are challenged and contribute to success. Not following processes ‘as such’. Successful managers understand this and focus on the emotional dynamics between people. As a result, they bring people together and create the right atmosphere. The creativity and connection that arises as a result often produces astonishing results. It is not without reason that there is increasing interest in working with self-managing teams.

Realizing the unique potential
In nature, the simple rule is that organisms exist by surviving and reproducing. How they accomplish this is left open. That is why nature has such a great diversity. The same law applies to responsive organizations: successful behavioral change ties in with the unique potential of an organization and can take many forms. Good processes and structures are of course helpful, but not decisive. Or, as De Waal puts it: ‘the process does not specify the path to success any more than the interior of a house in Vienna tells us what kind of music is coming out the window’.

Responsiveness is more important than the plan

Where will you be in five years?
A question that many entrepreneurs, career tigers and top athletes ask themselves is: “Where do I want to be in five years’ time”? Asking this question will help you plan your future and take the necessary steps to get there. Or so is the assumption…

“Life got in the way”
Yet I know very few entrepreneurs who at any point have arrived at the place they had thought of for themselves five years earlier. There are always events and developments that influence the direction and the result – both positive and negative. Life came between them and their plans.

Relative value
Of course your organization has a vision. But that vision is not limited to time. It is about what can be improved in your market, how products and services can be marketed in distinctive ways, the possibilities of technology, new value propositions. And with that vision comes an ambition. Call it a mission: market leadership, most innovative company, best employer. You name it. It’s good to make that ambition “SMART” (Specific, Measurable, Acceptabel, Realistic and Time-bound). This is your potential! And people will get excited about it. But the answer to the question “Where do you want the organization to be in five years’ time” has relative value. For example, if you are an ambitious hospitality entrepreneur who wanted to open your restaurant in the spring of 2020. Or someone who envisioned to open their online brand of consumer goods. In either case, the strategic plan doesn’t make much sense anymore – for one entrepreneur the COVID 19 outbreak could mean bankruptcy, the other one is growing faster than he had anticipated. In any case: for both entrepreneurs it means finding an answer to the circumstances and events now. In other words: it’s about being responsive. Either by changing your business model – delivering meals at home and setting up the processes and logistics for this – or invest in scaling up your operation and finding a solution to the financing problem that this creates.

The dot on the horizon versus now…
Entrepreneurial life is full of unexpected events and developments, opportunities and threats alike. But what is more important then? The best possible response to events and developments? Or sticking to that “dot on the horizon”? The answer, of course, is the best possible response right now. Because that’s what the future of your company hinges on!

Doing business in the present moment
No company can afford anything else: if reality “happens” to your company, responsiveness is required. Because you do business and manage it in the present moment. By responding to and anticipating change. By improving and innovating. And that takes you and your organization somewhere. Very often this is not at the predetermined end point. The journey turns out to be more important. And if you are able to look at it that way and take your organization along, the journey will also be a lot more fun and adventurous. Full of unexpected windfalls.

John Lennon once sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” That does not apply to responsive organizations. They are of course inspired by their ambitions and strategy. But these are not set in stone. As Daniël Ropers, former Managing Director of Bol.com, put it: “Responding to change is really more important than following a plan!” (‘The Responsive Entreprise’, by Rini van Solingen en Vikram Kapoor, Publisher Boom, 2016).

The art of letting Go

In one of the previous blogs we discussed the transition in the field of management: from so-called “directive” to “facilitating” leadership. Managers are not the people who tell the team what to do, “make it perform” and “get the results.” The starting point is that the team can do that very well itself. Provided a number of conditions are met. For example, there must be clarity about the objectives, the team must be complete and there must be a clear division of tasks. The focus is on every individual coming into his or her own and that there is psychological safety so that the team can develop freely.

What often comes up in discussions about facilitating leadership is that managers should be able, and dare, to “let go”. Does this mean that you are not interfering with anything anymore? That you let everyone have their own way, and see what that leads up to?

That is by no means letting go. But for managers who are used to planning, directing and controlling it may feel like that. Because it’s a habit. And habitual behavior is persistent: even though you believe that working differently is good, it feels uncomfortable, and maybe even scary, because you’re not used to it. Which is why it is a good thing to consider what letting go exactly is in a management context.

To this end, we make a distinction between “desire” and “intention”. They are two states of mind, or attitudes, that are very similar but differ in one important aspect.

Desire
With a desire you are attached to the result you want to achieve. That means that you experience positive emotions when that result is achieved and negative emotions when it is not. Compare it to a child who has set his sight on the latest game console for his birthday: the greater the desire, the greater the joy or disappointment when the wish is or is not fulfilled. The intensity of the emotion is directly proportional to the intensity of the desire.

Intention
When you are not attached to the result you want, then there is an intention. When you act from intentions, your attitude is open to the results that emerge. You do have a result in mind (the intention), but you are not emotionally affected by the actual result because you are not attached to it. This makes you accept the result as it is. You do not resist the outcome. But that does not mean that you are apathetic or that you will give up. Because you remain open and curious about further possibilities and what to do next – and as a result you create agility and creativity …

In daily management practice, many things are not going as well as planned or budgeted. Viewed from the perspective of desire, they all harbor disappointments.

Disappointment is a form of resistance to reality. People who act from intentions do not have that resistance. They accept the results and will therefore look at them more freely. As a result, they are better able to see how things can further be improved: the lack of desire and resistance automatically means an open mind and a creative attitude: “OK, this is what we have achieved, why and how do we make it better?”

Management
The difference between “directive management” and “letting go” is comparable to this. You put together your team. Obviously there are objectives. You want to go somewhere. And you give the team the autonomy to decide how they are going to achieve that goal and what actions they will to take. If necessary, you give advice. And you coach the team members. But then you “release” them to do the work. And you wait and see what the results of their actions are. With an open mind: your intention on the goal, and accepting what is to come.

Attitude
The difference between both management styles is a small difference in attitude. There is no difference in ambition level. The attitude of “letting go” ensures that the team can freely do what it does best. It leads to a world of difference in spirit within teams, motivation of those involved and responsiveness of the organization.