Micromanagement in Agile Management: A Fine Balance

8 mins read

So many of us shudder at the very thought of micromanagement. This simple words conjures up images of hovering managers, relentless meetings, impossible deliverable schedules, intense granularity, and deep ingrained feelings of mistrust. In other words, not the most conducive environment for productive individual and team success.

But is there a flipside to micromanagement? How does micromanagement fit or not fit into modern agile management? Some would argue that agile management really is just micromanagement in disguise. Of course, a lot of this debate does come down to semantics and personal bias.

We want to take a deeper look at micromanagement – the good, the bad, the ugly, and how its flavors can foster a productive agile management system. The caveat being here, that you do not get so caught up in what is or isn’t micromanagement that you lose focus on the ultimate goals of agile management within your enterprise.

Know the signs of micromanagement, learn how to identify if it’s hurting or helping, and keep perspective on how and what you need to do to drive agile management processes for your team and organization success. Micromanagement happens – but it isn’t a deal-breaker.

Agile Management Defined

The Agile Manifesto serves as the blueprint for any enterprise looking to adopt agile management methodologies. While it’s important to not be so closely tied to the principles of the Agile Manifesto, it is in knowing these keys that you’re able to better see its application within your organization.

The Agile Manifest authors wrote in 2001:

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value: 

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation.
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
  • Responding to change over following a plan.

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.  

The Agile Manifesto was written with agile software development as its primary focus but over recent years we’ve seen the adoption of agile management principles and practices outside of the software domain. Now, large-scale enterprises from those in automotive, manufacturing, retail, finance, real estate, and food are realizing the benefits of an agile management approach.

This wider acceptance of agile management has lent itself to new interpretations of how agile can work for a long-established enterprise. And this is how and why we see micromanagement in agile management.

Micromanagement for Agile Management Success 

Micromanagement is not all bad. When done right, in keeping with the principles of agile management, it can serve to foster a better and stronger team environment. Think of how agile breeds success within an organization:

  • Focus on the individual.
  • Clear and open communication.
  • Ability to adapt to change.
  • Measurable deliverables.
  • A focus on organization success.

How is this possible without knowing what each team member is or isn’t doing? Micromanagement is inherent in how the product owner, Scrum Master, and project manager communicate with the team, management, and customers.

When done right, micromanagement can be used by agile leaders to encourage and support the team. How does the Scrum Master remove blockers without working closely with team members to identify problems? How does the product owner determine when a story is truly done without being invested in team progress? How does the project manager keep the project on track and budge without knowing the risks and success of the project? It all comes down to smart micromanagement and leadership.

  • Problem driven. The downside to micromanagement is the agile leader who fails to listen to the problems and is quick to offer solutions. Switch the focus from providing solutions and guide the team and individuals in finding the best approach to solve the problem. This helps to maintain a sense of control and ownership within the team and prevents the meddling tendencies of intense micromanagement.
  • Team empowerment. Your team needs to know that your trust them to do their work. When micromanagement takes over, team confidence and productivity drops. Attend stand-ups, iteration reviews, and sit in on brainstorming sessions – but don’t be a loud and overpowering presence. Trust your team to take ownership of the project and to follow their instincts. Be available to remove blockers, adjust schedules, and for discussion but don’t be an invading presence.
  • Big picture mission. Your team is working on very specific deliverables within short timelines of typically two to three weeks. Remember this and don’t overburden them with the big details of the project. Your responsibility as the product owner, Scrum Master, or project manager is in keeping the team aligned to the big picture mission – but don’t let this cloud the team’s ability to make decisions and drive growth.
  • Focus on the what not the how. You are not the product designer, software developer, architect, or financial planner – you’re the leader – the one who is there to provide guidance and scope. Don’t try to do your team’s work for them – this is the epitome of micromanagement. Just as you don’t want your team members doing your job – do the same for your team.
  • Freedom and flexibility. Remember this core fundamental to agile management success to keep control on micromanagement. When you become rigid, the ability for the team to solve problems on-the-fly or to take a risk that can result in a big break-through become hampered. It’s with flexibility and freedom that people will communicate, collaborate, and find solutions to problems together. It can be hard to loosen the reigns, but the pay-off is huge.

Agile Management with Micromanagement

You know that agile management is the right path for your organization. You also understand that when done right, micromanagement can foster the environment you need for team and organization success.

It is a fine balance. Too much freedom and the team can lose focus of its goals. Too many rules and oversight can suffocate the creativity needed to solve problems. Talk to your team, find out what is and isn’t working with your management style. This honesty will allow you to adjust your approach to agile management – ensuring that everyone is aligned in the best approach to success. Don’t fear micromanagement – just use it properly.