30 January 2007

Micromanagement & Complexity

Is there a link between a tendency to micromanagement and a preference for complexity?

My gut says yes, but I haven't been able to craft a solid case for it yet. I'm interested in hearing your opinions, theories, experiences or experiments. Do micromanagers tend to overvalue complexity, or am I off base here?

Here's what I'm thinking so far. Since micromanagement tends to be about trusting one's self more than one's subordinates, micromangers might prefer complexity because their understanding of complex systems / technologies / processes / etc is greater than their subordinate's understanding, which reinforces the perceived need for their involvement ("Here, this is complicated and I know how to do it, so let me just do it for you...").

Other thoughts? Stories?


Mark said...

Hmmm.... on the flip side, perhaps some micromanagers dislike complexity just as much as you or I. The trust issue that you mentioned still applies - they might trust themselves to implement a "simple" solution, while expecting the unenlightened/incompetent/whatever subordinates to of course take the path of complexity.

So I guess I can see a link in some cases, but not universally.

The problem with generalizations is that there is always an exception. ;)

Trevor Gay said...

Hi Dan

Greetings from across the pond to my American friend - life is good.

In my experience as a subordinate I loved it when the boss was ‘hands off’ but there if I needed him/her. I loved the freedom within parameters. I tried to do that as much as possible when I became a manager myself allowing the people I was responsible for to do things within their own ‘rules’ as far as possible. The dilemma as a leader/manager is I guess how much do I let go and how much I keep hold. I remember a valued and respected older colleague telling me when I was a brash young manager (many centuries ago) that ‘the best way to gain power is to let go of power.’

Life as a manager also taught me that front line staff ALWAYS know the right answers. I have got involved in heated debate recently on this subject on Tom Peters Blog. I stand by my view that front line staff don’t need ‘managing’ – they need ‘leading’ – the two are completely different

So I guess my summary would be that those managers who need to ‘micro-manage’ are probably insecure and worried about their own job. They fear if they don’t hold on to something they may be laid off as being unnecessary. They may feel if they make things complicated they will ‘feel’ safer because they make their staff jump through hoops to get things done and of course the staff have to still ‘ask the boss.’

It is all about power I think.

The modern leader – in my opinion – will ‘let go’ of much more than he/she holds on to. Easier said than done for some managers I know but I think this is the only way. In the crazy organisational world you and I now occupy Dan and more so for anyone in corporate management I think the best way to not get fired is to work like hell to get fired.

I love your 7 tips by the way.

Dan said...

Ah, maybe the link between complexity and micromanagement is of a different nature than I'd first imagined.

Perhaps the link is simply that both are ill-advised, unfortunate coping mechanisms, pursued in an attempt at self-preservation. Both are expressions of insecurity. One doesn't necessarily lead to the other, but they both have similar roots... and might therefore be exhibited in tandem.

For example, the more complexity a manager is surrounded with (assuming he or she can convince everyone that they are the only one who can master the complexity), the more secure they'll feel... and the more indispensable the manager is, the more they'll micromanage.

Both seem to come down to issues of control, security and a desire to appear indispensable. Ultimately, it comes down to fear, doesn't it?

These strike me as very human, primal drives. We all want to be in control and secure, don't we? (reminder to self: have compassion for complexity-seeking micromanagers). And yet breaking free of these fears is a key part of maturity, making a difference, etc.

Mucho thanks to Mark & Trevor for sharing your insights!

Dick Field said...

I'd like to offer a corollary (extension?) to Trevor and Dan's point on complexity as security. I have found that complexity makes a great corporate security blanket because there is a tremendous of cover and foregiveness in it when failures occur. Consider it organizational "softness" or "fleece". Because complexity involves more elements, and therefore is harder to describe and understand, there are many places to hide between the fibers. Excuses are more available and more plausible. In fact, comlexity-prone managers are lauded for the sheer ability to deal with it all and just survive. How many times have you heard, "Poor ______, he/she is so busy . . . up to his/her * in alligators . . . has a full plate . . . etc.? Sometimes, this is literally true - for field operations in Iraq, say. But, more often than not - complexity is fabric for hiding personal failures, dissipating responsibility and liability, and finding reasons why the objective can't be achieved.

Dan said...

Great points, Dick! I'm going to include a new chart that shows the inverse relationship between accountability and complexity in an organization... because as you pointed out, the more complexity, the less people can be reasonably expected to be held accountable for their actions & failures...

good stuff!