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 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.
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.