Micromanagement (and its cousin)

Scrum derives much of its power from the effectiveness of self-directed teams.  When a strong team takes ownership of an issue, they feel compelled to resolve it.  Interfering with this motivation through micromanaging can have disastrous effects on the team, as I outline below.  (Note: most of what I say about teams applies to individuals as well.)  In this post, I'll lay out a new way to look at micromanagement, discover another, reverse kind of leadership concern, and provide some tips for resolving both issues.

At its core, micromanagement is a disconnect between how much structure the leader provides and how much structure the team expects - the leader is providing too much structure.  In this case, think of structure as the combination of two kinds of activities: the leader directing how the task should be performed and the level of status reporting the leader requires. The levels of structure are based on assessments of the team's skill level: the team's self-assessment and the leader's assessment.  These independent assessments drive the amount of structure the leader provides and the amount of structure the team expects.

If the team's assessment of their skill is low, they will expect high structure.  If the team's assessment of their skill is high, they will expect low structure.  On the other hand, if the leader's assessment of team skill is low, he or she will provide high structure.  If the leader's assessment of team skill is high, he or she will provide low structure. If we show this in a matrix, we can uncover two kinds of good delegation and two kinds of disconnects.  (The assessment of the team's skill level can be wrong on either or both sides, but let's leave that complexity aside for a later post.)

When the leader's assessment and the team's assessment line up (lower left and upper right quadrants), things go smoothly.  If both parties assess skill as high, the leader will provide a low level of structure and the team will expect a low level.  If both parties assess skill as low, the leader will provide a high level of structure and the team will expect a high level.

micromanagertable

When the two assessments differ (upper left and lower right quadrants), problems arise.  If the leader's assessment is higher than the team's, the leader will provide low structure, but the team will expect high structure; therefore, the team will feel abandoned.  If the leader's assessment is lower than the team's, the leader will provide high structure, but the team will expect low structure; therefore, the team will feel micromanaged.

In the case of abandonment, there is a silver lining.  The team may feel empowered and challenged, particularly if the gap between structure expected and structure provided is relatively low.  In some cases, a leader may arise within the team to provide some internal structure.  In addition, growth normally requires a little less structure than the team would expect.  Think of any skill you have mastered.  You successively removed structure in order to get better, but you could only find out if you were actually better by removing the structure before you were really ready to do so.  Finally, in my experience, it is relatively easy for the leader to provide some greater structure, if asked.  Advice or encouragement here or there and some thoughtful questions may do the trick.

On the other hand, the micromanagement quadrant is a greater threat to team function.  This is due to the legacy management expectation.  Teams often distrust leadership's promise of self-direction and are waiting for "evidence" that the leader didn't really mean it.  Micromanagement may represent enough evidence for the team to reject self-direction.  In addition, teams may resist taking the responsibility that comes along with self-direction.  Micromanagement may allow them to do so.  Finally, in my experience, it is more difficult for the leader to remove structure that is already in place.  Once the leader has provided details on how the task should be done, those instructions are difficult to remove.

So, viewing the micromanagement issue as a comparison of skill levels may make it easier to handle.  In addition, a treatment may also resolve the somewhat less concerning issue of abandonment.  As the team's leader, before making a new assignment, have a brief, but candid, conversation about the team's experience with the task(s).  Here's how to handle this conversation:

  • Make it safe for them to discuss their lack of experience without disappointing you.
  • Respect their assessment.  Tune the level of structure provided to the team's expectations, if possible.
  • If you disagree with the team's assessment, talk about why.  Then, be clear about the level of structure you will be providing, and why.
  • Finally, if you and the team disagree, watch how the task turns out and have another conversation when it is completed.  You or they may be surprised by their actual skill level.

With previous clients, Sigao coaches have developed skills in detecting these kinds of issues in delegation.  We can work with your leaders to develop more sophisticated models of leadership and delegation that empower your teams and fuel the productivity of scrum.

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