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Jim Highsmith is an executive consultant at ThoughtWorks, Inc. He has 30-plus years experience as an IT manager, product manager, project manager, consultant, and software developer. Jim is the author of Agile Project Management: Creating Innovative Products, Addis Wesley 2004; Adaptive Software Development: A Collaborative Approach to Managing Complex Systems, Dorset House 2000 and winner of the prestigious Jolt Award, and Agile Software Development Ecosystems, Addison Wesley 2002. Jim is also the recipient of the 2005 international Stevens Award. Jim is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 30 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

Micromanagement vs. Macromanagement

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I’ve always been concerned that some agile practices are applied even when they are not appropriate for a particular situation. I’ve called this Agile 101, learning the basics, that Alistair Cockburn calls the Shu level of learning ( Shu-Ha-Ri are the three levels). All too often some agile practice or misunderstood principle will be inappropriately used.

One of the tenets of managing self-organizing teams has been the Agile mantra of “don’t micromanage.” The question in my mind is whether or not this always applies. Agile leaders are admonished, I’ve said this myself, to create a clear vision, establish appropriate boundaries, and facilitate team collaboration. And then, get out of the way! There are certainly circumstances when this style of management is appropriate, but is it always?

What got me thinking about this paradox of micro- versus macro-management was reading Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Steve Jobs (a great read by the way). Jobs was in many ways a micro manager 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. Product review meetings with Bill Gates were also legendary—and he was noted for uncovering the slightest flaw in thinking about new products.

So would Jobs have been categorized as a good agile leader? If not, are we offering people the right agile leadership model? There is no doubt that Jobs build one of the most successful technology companies ever. Gates built another. This appears to be one of the paradoxes of good management, and whenever there is a paradox, or a seeming one, looking at it from a different angle often helps.

If we take a close look there appear to be some interesting differences between forms of micromanaging. Jobs focused on product, not process. Jobs learned from his father to focus on every aspect of the product, even the insides that were hidden from view. Jobs 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, not a manager. While Jobs obviously had managerial authority over the staff, and used this authority, his passion was about creating great products. There is little doubt that Jobs’ passion about products made Apple into a stellar business success.

When we think of micromanaging, the “bad” kind, we are usually thinking about it in the context of managing the “how,” the detail list of tasks and endless focus on process. While adaptive, agile leadership should focus on vision, engaging, and boundaries—it should also be about “product” management, or leadership—about creating outstanding, innovative products. The first part is macro-management, the second micro.

So when we talk about micromanaging, we need to separate the “bad” kind from the “good.” Which also raises the next questions, “Is there some other good to be extracted from the bad?

Published at DZone with permission of Jim Highsmith, author and DZone MVB. (source)

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)


Muhammad Faiz replied on Thu, 2012/04/12 - 12:13pm

Hey Jim, many thanks for this post!

Don’t you think that Jobs was more like an adviser for Apple’s teams than a manager?


Lily Marlene replied on Thu, 2012/06/14 - 4:00pm

Steve Jobs did a lot of great things and his micromanagement techniques proved to be very successful. He was able to put his brilliant ideas into practice and check hundreds of times the device before it was released on the market and on Online Classifieds, details are very important if you want your product to be bought by millions of people worldwide.

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