A systems viewpoint and how self-organizing principles can help.
Micromanagement… It feels like a four-letter word. Something heavily denounced in the gospels of management self-help. A known killer to creativity and the creative team. And yet, it is still so rampant. How can this be? And, how can we combat it?
To explore this question further, I want to explore micromanagement through the lens of a systems framework. Even more specifically, I want to focus on how this affects teams involved in creative work: design, research, technology development, and the like. Through this lens, I’ll explore how micromanaged teams — and, more generally, centrally-controlled teams — are counterproductive for creative groups. Along the way, maybe we’ll glean some knowledge of the management practices that reinforce this behavior. And hopefully, we can also gain some inspiration for an alternative.
But first, let’s build that systems frame of our favorite management method.
From a more basic perspective, I’ll define micromanagement as task-level management by a centralized authority, by whom decision-making is controlled. Essentially, a micromanager focuses on the close control of the team individual’s work and output. From this let’s build our systems view.
To start building our system mental model, let’s look at the flow of information throughout the system. This is a key place to both understand and intervene in a system. There are other places to look as well, but I believe information flows covers most of what a team exchanges. For a team, this will be information related to tasks, decisions, feedback, etc. For the micromanaged team, these flows all point vertically. In other words, if one were to draw arrows representing the flow of information and decisions, they would all be pointing between the boss and the individual team members — often with a unidirectional arrow pointing downward towards each member of the team. You can consider this type of organization to be centrally-controlled. This structure resembles a typical hierarchical organizational chart. In other words, the standard way companies organize themselves sets a bias toward this type of centrally-controlled system, where each reporting line goes from the boss to its members. Information in this type of system generally flows from top-down. Top-down in the sense that it relies on a master planner or designer.
Based on our earlier definition, the master planner works to control the type and amount of tasks each team member has, as well as the schedule of these tasks. Most systems are goal-seeking¹. So, let’s make the goal of this team to complete a project. We’ll assume that a master plan was devised ahead of time, with all tasks and their duration identified a priori — often the case with many traditional project management methods.
From here, let’s look at where feedback occurs in this system. We can do so by asking: What does the system maintain (or keep stock of) to achieve its goal? I would argue that it maintains task assignments to each team member. It also keeps these tasks on schedule (minimizing deviation). If the system is successful, it would look much like an efficient, project-completing manufacturing line, with the task-master at the helm.
For the organizers and the efficiency aficionados this may sound on point. For many of us that work in creative teams, this may sound horrifying. But, before we make too many judgements, let’s take a look at what we expect of creative teams.
From creative teams, we often expect the next big thing or discovery. Researchers discover new phenomena. Product designers make the previously unknown desirable. Artists change the way people interpret the world. They surprise us. The best way I can put it, we expect the unexpected from the creative process and creative teams.
From my own experience working in technology development, I’ve found that this type of work is very open-ended. Open-ended in the sense that there are open questions to be answered and vague ideas that need refining (or even replacing). Words like exploration, experimentation, and inquiry come to mind when describing creative work. This is the mental model of a creative team I’ll use going forward.
Why Centrally-Controlled Systems are Bad for Creative Teams
Looking again at our efficient, project-completing team, we can start to see the mismatch. In the words of Google X’s Head Designer, Nick Foster, “real design work is complex, chaotic and messy”. This type of work is the opposite of the efficient, predictable, and orderly centrally-controlled team described earlier. I mean, some adjectives describing creative work are thesaurus-grade antonyms! Even beyond this basic incompatibility, there are other reasons against centrally-controlled creative teams.
For centrally-controlled project teams, the goal is efficient project completion and performance. A focus on the short-term performance of a team, such as a schedule adherence and output, is detrimental to the environment that encourages creativity¹. If the work is by nature chaotic, how can you expect efficiency and constant output?
A third reason is the flow of information is not conducive to creativity. Instructions and ideas only flow downward — and maybe sometimes upward for the humble leader of a centrally-controlled team. Thus, information still needs to be interpreted, formulated, approved, and distributed by the person at the top. Effectively, information is funneled, filtered, and delayed. It is a means of controlling information and action. How can you expect the unexpected from such an environment? If the team is comprised of talented and skilled individuals, how can their work be at its best if it is constantly filtered? What happens if these individuals have a spark of an idea that is at odds with the central leader? I would argue that on such a team it is worthless to hire creative individuals — their work will be watered-down anyways.
So, what now then? We need a system that is not centrally controlled, where we can reasonably (or at least occasionally) expect the unexpected.
This type of system exists and is called a self-organizing system. Self-organizing systems are ones that “learn, diversify, and complexify”¹. They build from the bottom-up, instead of being designed from the top-down. They fundamentally create unique structures based on their simple rules.
A snowflake is one example of a self-organized system. Simple rules govern how a snowflake forms, but the resulting shape is incredibly unique¹. We even come to expect the unexpected from a snowflake — everyone knows that no snowflake is alike. Another is Adam Smith’s theory of the economy. Adam Smith’s invisible hand is the thought that the economy is guided not by a centralized commander, but emerges through the activity of buyers and sellers acting on their own². Yet another is the macro-view of innovation and inventions within Silicon Valley. Is there a central commander guiding the creation of individual companies or inventions there?
Contrasting this system with the centrally-controlled team described earlier, the information flows are completely different. Instead of all information flowing vertically to the leader, information now forms a network or web of interactions between all members. This type of interconnectedness is a hallmark of complex and self-organized systems². These interconnections are what provides their ability to learn and complexify. In fact, this is what makes self-organized systems surprise us. But, how do we make our teams leverage these qualities?
The simplest way to create a self-organized team is to simply “let go”. For teams to be allowed to self-organize, they need some room to breathe. They need room to solve problems on their own. Room to create information flows between individual members and across teams.
Remember how the snowflake example? Its complexity and uniqueness is guided by simple rules. So, to guide decision-making on a team, create simple rules. These can be simple guidelines at the beginning but will probably emerge into culture in the end. This is where shared values, experiences, and knowledge form to create a team that exhibits almost a “shared-consciousness”, as Gen. Stanley McChrystal likes to put it². This will take time, which takes me to the next point.
Care must be taken not to quell the emergence of this networked system within your team (and across teams). Managers must be careful to not over-control or perturb this system as it grows. It’s much like gardening, where you merely create the environment for plants to grow — you cannot dictate that the plants should grow². Don’t be the commander, be the gardener.
Management Practices that Reinforce Micromanagement
As a final note, I want to sample some management practices that can encourage micromanagement and discourage self-organization. The first is a common practice, which, if not done carefully, can lead to micromanagement of teams.
Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) are common in management practice, however, their use can lead us to focus on short-term performance. When we analyze KPI’s and their trends, often we are looking for constant output or steadily increasing (or decreasing) trends. Essentially, shooting for KPI targets is the goal, where either surpassing that goal or steady achievement towards it is desired. However, measures of team resilience and self-organization are not always stable. In fact, from a systems point-of-view, the term resilience has more to do with bouncing back from perturbations rather than constancy. Self-organization is like resilience but the next level up, with its ability to heal and also improve based on external inputs¹. You can think of a virus and the COVID-19 pandemic as an example. What made COVID-19 so prevalent and effective is its ability to bounce back and evade our countermeasures. If infection rates were a KPI for COVID-19, infection rates were not constant or stable (if looking over the timeframe of 2 years). However, you could describe COVID-19 as resilient and having the ability to improve itself, a self-organizing characteristic. Monitoring team KPIs for constancy and steady trends won’t get us closer to self-organization.
Another common practice is to forecast projects far into the future. Think of the average Gantt chart. It may portray schedules out for months, assuming one can predict the outcome of many events over a long period of time. Do you think you can predict every roadblock? How long prototyping and design will take? When creativity will spur? And then, take those predictions to point to one date a year from now for project completion? Making a far-out point prediction with so many variables is unrealistic. Maybe this works for work that is being repeated and has been done before but certainly not for teams expected to produce the unexpected.
A final example that is somewhat unexpected is the use of Design Thinking as a framework for creative teams. Design thinking tries to make the design process clean, predictable, and normalized. It essentially removes the characteristics we desire from creative teams. Instead, it tries to place control on the design process. It tries to place design into an efficient, output oriented production line, much like the micromanaging team described earlier. As we saw earlier, such tight control is not how a team will form self-organizing structures or characteristics.
So, in summary, micromanagement is somewhat built into our organizations and management methods but there are ways to help your creative teams flourish. Let your creative teams navigate the messy creative process. Try not to control the process too much, else you can only expect mediocrity. Remember, you are expecting these teams to surprise you. Surprises cannot arise through control.
 Meadows, Donella H. Thinking in systems: A primer. chelsea green publishing, 2008.
 McChrystal, Gen Stanley, et al. Team of teams: New rules of engagement for a complex world. Penguin, 2015.