The self-defeating effects of micro-management

I started drafting a blog post about the self-defeating effects of micro-management when I came across this interview response (from Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz) which sums it up perfectly:

What classic mistakes do you see managers making over and over?

“Setting a goal is one thing. Telling people how to do it step-by-step is another thing. That’s what happens especially with new managers. They not only tell the result that’s supposed to happen but they also tell them how to do it, which is such an insult. People just friggin’ shut down–I guess I’m not going to do it well enough. I’ll just wait to have you tell me how to do it.”

(via Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz: “I’m Just a Manager”.)

I’ve seen teams “shut down” for this exact reason, and the result is a loss for everyone.

When faced with continual “managerial vetoes” and micro-management, teams stop delivering the value they are capable of. They no longer seek the best solutions — they no longer listen to their customers. By not delegating and trusting their team, these managers have created more work for themselves! And the odds are pretty good that whatever comes out of this process will be sub-par.

The idea raises an interesting perspective on the evaluation of new products and services: If the solution is sub-par, was it for lack of ability on the part of the implementation team? Or was it lack of ability on the part of their management?

On a related note, I highly recommend
The Effective Executive” by Peter Drucker if you happen to be new to management (or, in this case, have under-performing teams.) “Reflections on Management: How to Manage Your Software Projects, Your Teams, Your Boss, and Yourself” by Watts Humphrey has some nice views on this issue as well.

Great quote on the value of being a good client

“Clients who are easy to work with … don’t just get our best work. They also get the lowest invoices, because we can work efficiently and don’t have to fight our way through the process.”

The article is about working with Graphic Designers, but it applies equally well to technology or strategy engagements.

via “10 Secret Code Phrases to Get What You Want from Your Graphic Designer“.

Nielsen finds that Senior Management is often what blocks innovation

The findings from this Nielsen report, “Secret to Successful New Product Innovation: Keep the Boss Out of It“, ring all too true, and are worth considering if your company creates, wants to create, or is struggling to create products.

Two key points from the report:

  • Get the innovation centers out of the corporate headquarters
  • Let Senior Management focus on the process, not the ideas

Why would this be the case? There are numerous possibilities, but many will likely involve corporate politics, “group-think”, “power and control” issues, and people focused on the wrong areas. Remember, your Senior Management should be very knowledgeable of the field in which you do business, but are generally tasked with operational responsibilities — not directly on R&D, market research, customer support, etc. Furthermore, without a clear process for product proposals, funding, and re-investment, good ideas might be battling for funding against lesser ideas from someone with more political power.

So how do you solve it? You’ll have to look at the operational shortcomings of your own organization; But the solution likely involves a proper Product Management group, and an open product proposal, review, and funding process. It may come as a surprise to many, but the role of Product Management is to focus development (and product creation) on the right products, based on market needs (identified via market research.) They uncover opportunities, evaluate fit, and get solutions to your customers.

Too often, Product Management is run incorrectly (or non-existent), which might be behind the findings of the Nielsen report. If anyone in the company (Product Managers included) is basing product strategies on their gut feel — you’re gambling. If you’re in the Invention Business, that’s fine. Just acknowledge that you’re guessing.

Having a clear, open process for product proposals is equally, if not more important. This is how you suppress favoritism and personal agendas. It also allows you to leverage the wisdom of your full organization (e.g., internal crowd-sourcing and peer-review.) In my experience, transparency in product funding is a major area of contention since it “takes away” power from Senior Management (even though having this power hurts the organization.)

If you’re expecting new product innovation and your organizational operations aren’t specifically designed to foster it, it’s time to get serious or quit kidding yourself.

  • Give people the time and tools they need to innovate
  • Get the politics and “devil’s advocates” out of the ideation process
  • Establish an open process for reviewing and selecting the products to be funded
  • Understand your metrics for success
  • Adopt formal Product Management methodologies
  • Listen to the market (your customers and non-customers)
  • Allow customer and market research to trump seniority
  • Be willing to fail quickly and move-on
  • Accept that good ideas can come from anywhere
  • Ensure that Senior Management (and everyone, for that matter) understands their role, and what’s expected of them


Related reading: “Innovation and Entrepreneurship” by Peter F. Drucker (or at least my review of the book.)

Book: “Reflections on Management”

Reflections on Management: How to Manage Your Software Projects, Your Teams, Your Boss, and Yourself wasn’t the best written/edited book, but has some tasty bits scattered within the random acronyms. It reads like the storytellings of a retiring, experienced, software manager at a large corporation. Someone telling the inside story in a blunt, matter-of-fact approach. Personally, I like that style. It gets to the point without dancing around the subject. The only caveat with this book though, is that some of the advice is a little too specific to the author’s previous corporate environments. Still, if you’re stuck at an airport and this is what the local bookstore has, it’s not a bad choice.

A few quotes:

“Quality work is not done by mistake.”

“When developers are simultaneously assigned to several projects, they have split loyalties and their teammates cannot rely on them for support and assistance.”

“It is hard for someone to feel committed to a project when management is unwilling to make it their principal job.”

“Discipline, in fact, is what separates the experts from the amateurs in any professional field.”

“The team leader must motivate, coach, drive, and urge the members to perform to the best of their abilities.”

“If you don’t change the engineers’ working practices, you can change the organizational structure and all its procedures, but nothing much will really change. Thus, to have a substantial impact on an organization’s performance, you must change the way the engineers actually work.”

“Even when the result is a total business disaster, if the team provided a rewarding personal experience, the team members will view the project as a success.”

“When people say they are working harder, they actually mean they are working longer hours.”

“Designing, coding, reviewing, inspecting, and testing are intensely difficult tasks. To have any hope of producing quality products, we must occasionally take breaks.”

“Often, teams respond to this pressure by taking shortcuts, using poor methods, or gambling on a new (to them) language, tool, or technique.”

“Every day that you wait to act is a day that you can’t use to solve the problem.”

“The most important single asset a software engineer can have is a reputation for meeting commitments.”

“The most successful teams have energetic, enthusiastic, confident, and hard-driving leaders. If you don’t have the required energy and drive, figure out what to change so that you do. If you can’t see how to do that, either your team has a hopeless job or it needs a new leader.”

“A significant part of your leadership job is to keep the team’s goals clear and well defined and to ensure that every team member knows how his or her current tasks contribute to meeting that goal.”

“It is impossible to be an effective leader without being committed to a cause that animates you and motivates your followers.”

Book: Blue Ocean Strategy

Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant” uses a “red ocean vs. blue ocean” analogy to discuss the risks of head-to-head corporate competition (bloody red oceans) against the opportunities of differentiating your company or service such that your offerings are unique (blue oceans.)

The book walks through a few techniques for modeling your current market and exploring opportunities to reposition yourself. This analysis focuses heavily on identifying gaps between the parts of a service that businesses emphasize, and the parts that customers value. For example, if a current market has competitors battling over “quality of craftsmanship”, thus raising prices and limited it’s customer base, there may be a blue ocean strategy around simplifying manufacturing, reducing costs, and selling to a wider audience.

In many ways, the solutions the book promotes are often in alignment with the classic “user-centered design” and product management philosophies of listening to customers and focusing on providing customer value, rather then selling to a fictitious market. However, to get into a blue ocean, a company must react and reinvent itself if the customers it wants need a different offering.

A few quotes:

“Effective strategy should be about risk minimization and not risk taking.”

“Innovative ideas will be profitable only if they are linked to what buyers are willing to pay for.”

“Unless the technology makes buyers’ lives dramatically simpler, more convenient, more productive, less risky, or more fun and fashionable, it will not attract the masses no matter how many awards it wins.”

“If individuals are not treated as though their knowledge is valued, they will … not share their ideas and expertise; rather, they will hoard their best thinking and creative ideas, preventing new insights from seeing the light of day.”

The concepts in the book aren’t too hard to grasp, and unfortunately, this makes the book feel unnecessarily long. It’s a easy read, but without a lot of substance. I do like how the Strategy Canvases were drawn (and I’m definitely going to play with that approach to modeling competition), so I did get some value out of it; But overall, the book isn’t sitting too high on my recommended list.

Book: “Innovation and Entrepreneurship”

What a great book — and difficult to review in a “cut to the chase” manner. “Innovation and Entrepreneurship“, by Peter F. Drucker, outlines a systematic approach for identifying innovation opportunities, and growing a culture of innovation within an organization. He provides a view of innovation as a style of working — a way of paying attention to, researching, and responding to key market changes.

The chapter on “Principles of Innovation” offers a nice list of Do’s and Dont’s, but this is just scratching the surface of the wisdom in this book:


  1. “Purposeful, systematic innovation begins with the analysis of the opportunities.”
  2. “Go out and look at the customers, the users, to see what their expectations, their values, their needs are.”
  3. “An innovation has to be simple, and it has to be focused. It should do only one things, otherwise, it confuses.”
  4. “Effective innovations start small.”
  5. “Successful innovation aims at leadership.”


  1. “[Do] not try to be clever.”
  2. “Don’t diversify… don’t try to do too many things at once.”
  3. “Don’t try to innovate for the future. Innovate for the present!”

Here are some of the quotes I highlighted while reading:

  • “The test of an innovation… lies in its success in the marketplace.”
  • “Most of Silicon Valley are still inventors rather than innovators, still speculators rather than entrepreneurs.”
  • “Entrepreneurship… is a behavior rather than [a] personality trait.”
  • “The entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity.”
  • “Entrepreneurship is ‘risky’ mainly because so few of the so-called entrepreneurs know what they are doing.”
  • “Anything truly new that looks big is indeed to be distrusted. The odds are heavily against its succeeding.”
  • “The organization must be… willing to perceive change as an opportunity rather than a threat.”
  • Only when people with proven performance capacity have been assigned to a project, supplied with the tools, the money, and the information they need to do the work, and given clear and unambiguous deadlines — only then do we have a plan.
  • “To render an existing business entrepreneurial, management must take the lead in making obsolete its own products and services rather than waiting for a competitor to do so.”
  • “The people responsible for an existing business will… always be tempted to postpone action on anything new, entrepreneurial, or innovative until it is too late.”
  • “A business needs only a very small share of a small market to be successful.”
  • “Failure to achieve objectives should be considered an indication that the objective is wrong, or at least defined wrongly.”
  • “The probability of success… diminishes with each successive try.” (In reference to pursuing the same idea multiple times.)
  • “One cannot do market research for something that is not yet on the market.”
  • “The new venture needs to build in systematic practices to remind itself that a ‘product’ or a ‘service’ is defined by the customer, not by the producer.”
  • Businesses are not paid to reform customers. They are paid to satisfy customers.
  • “The founder has to learn to become the leader of a team rather then a ‘star’ with ‘helpers.'”
  • “A product is not ‘quality’ because it is hard to make and costs a lot of money… Customers pay only for what is of use to them and gives them value. Nothing else constitutes ‘quality.'”
  • “A ‘premium’ price is always an invitation to the competitor.”
  • “Trying to satisfy everybody… always ends up satisfying nobody.”
  • “Charge for what represents ‘value’ to the customer rather then what represents ‘cost’ to the supplier.”

If you’re interested in learning how to develop a professional practice of innovation and entrepreneurial management, this is a great book to read. Sure, it’s a little dated (as Drucker’s work is going to be), but it doesn’t get in the way or dilute the message — and offers insightful business history and lessons that are still relevant today.