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Micromanaging the Right Way

Image generated by Microsoft Designer

Image generated by Microsoft Designer

Micromanaging has gotten a bad rap that maybe it doesn’t deserve it. Consider two of the most successful technology CEOs—Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. No one had a sense of the image, brand, or product integrity like Gates or Jobs. They had insight and an esthetic sense of what image their products should convey. Within Microsoft, product review meetings with Gates were legendary. These meetings included development staff and first-line managers who were grilled, as no one but Gates could, on the details of the product. He was noted for uncovering the slightest flaw in thinking about new products.

Steve Jobs had a similar reputation. In his biography of Jobs (“Steve Jobs,” 2011), Walter Isaacson depicted Jobs as  leader of extreme proportions. When it came to product development he inserted himself into excruciatingly detail design decisions. There was seemingly no in-between with Jobs–it was either wonderful or crap. In one iPhone design story, Jobs was unhappy about the “sloppiness” inside the cover. Whether anyone outside Apple would ever see it wasn’t the issue—he pushed for design integrity in every aspect of a product.

Similarly, Robert Iger (“Ride of a Lifetime”), Disney CEO since 2005, wants to understand the nuances of creating feature films, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars to produce. He gets involved in storylines, animation technology, selecting talent, and dailies. But directors and producers decide how to create the movie.

In recent years there has been a hue and cry that “managers should not micromanage.” But who is going to tell these three eminently successful CEOs not to suggest, or even demand, changes to products?  During Jobs’ hiatus from Apple, the company lost its way—its culture. Culture originates in the C-suite and products need to embody that culture. Apple’s culture of creativity, individuality, and nonconformity, expressed in its products, was lost for a time. Jobs understood that and upon rejoining Apple immediately went to work reinvigorating its product line.

One of the agile tenets of self-organizing teams has been the mantra “don’t micromanage.” Agile managers, from teams to the executive suite, are admonished to create a clear vision, establish appropriate boundaries, facilitate collaboration–and then, get out of the way! When it comes to product, this “don’t micromanage” tenet is entirely wrong! There is a huge difference between micromanaging product and micromanaging people and process.

Jobs learned from his father to focus on every aspect of the product. He obsessed about every detail, often driving his teams to try version, after version, after version (iterative design in the extreme). In many ways, Jobs played the roles of product owner and customer. Jobs’ passion for beautifully designed products that reflected the company’s culture made Apple into a stellar business success.

So would Jobs have been categorized as a good agile leader? If not, are we offering people the right agile leadership advice? There is no doubt that Jobs built one of the most successful technology companies ever. Gates built another as does Iger. Everyone seems to be jumping on the “don’t micromanage” bandwagon. I suggest it’s time we jumped off. While adaptive, agile leaders should engage in visioning, …, their ultimate success may  depend on product leadership–creating outstanding, innovative products that reflect the essence of their organization’s culture.

©2023 by Jim Highsmith