When is it okay to micromanage a project?

No one likes to assume the role of a micromanager. However, there are times--especially toward the end of a long project--when such a management style can ensure that team members understand what they have to accomplish.

I hadn't provided any mentoring to Chi-Ling for a few months, although I did see her around the office. Chi was just finishing up her project to create a database and standard reports for a consolidated analysis of all the taxes our company pays on a worldwide basis. (If you think the U.S. tax code is complicated, imagine trying to normalize and rationalize the taxes a multinational company pays.)

I ran into Chi as I was leaving a meeting. We talked for a few minutes, and I could tell there was some hesitation about whether her project would be completed on time. So, I offered to see her later in the day.

The dilemma
"We are almost done with the project," Chi said. "However, now for the first time, I feel like things are a little out of control."

"Really?" I asked. "Why is that?"

She told me that the project had been going on for five months. Her team had held status meetings every week and had done a good job of meeting their deadlines. She typically received a status report on the work completed and the work remaining. Then she handed out new assignments—a routine that had worked fine until now.

"What has changed?" I asked.

"You know how it is at the end of a project," Chi said. "We're trying to catch up with some loose ends that we bypassed earlier in the project. We're also trying to do our final testing, while some parts of the application are moving to production. We have data conversion, user training, etc."

"Sounds pretty complicated," I said. I didn't want to jump in yet, because I was not sure exactly what Chi's concern was. Lots of projects have a fire drill toward the end, when everything needs to come together at once.

"I guess my concern is that we have a lot going on and I am not sure I have everything under control," Chi admitted. "I am making assignments, but people are busy and they are not keeping me informed of their progress. I am visiting team members, but I don't want them to feel like I am micromanaging their work."

Okay, I thought. Now I see the concern. Chi is concerned about being labeled "The Micromanager."

Mentor advice
One of the common responsibilities of all managers is the management of both people and work. (If you don't do either, you're not really a manager.) All managers need to have timely, relevant, and accurate information so they can manage their people and work effectively. The trick, of course, is to know how much information you need and at what level.

Some managers like to stay out of the details. One manager I worked with never had an answer to questions about the status of projects in his department. He was either not interested in the work or he had a hard time keeping specific details in his head. He could tell you whether the work was on schedule, but not what the projects were working on.

Sometimes you can get away with this. However, in other cases, you can be seen as aloof and out of touch. The problem is that often these managers need to be engaged in the details of a project to determine what's going on. Because they're out of touch, they're not able to do it. They prefer to stick with the big picture even when the details are a mess.

On the other hand, you could be on top of people all the time, asking them how things are going, helping them resolve minor problems, assigning some of their work to someone else if it looks like they're a little behind. You know these types of managers as well. They're the infamous micromanagers. They actually spend so much time delving into the details that it takes them twice as long to get anything done. They also cause frustration on the part of team members because it seems they don't trust people to accomplish tasks on their own.

My approach to work management is to be a situational manager. I prefer to provide overall guidance and coaching to the team at a high level. I also want to make sure I can help remove any roadblocks. However, when a project gets behind or gets to a point where a lot needs to happen in a short amount of time, I can quickly move down to the details.

Situational management
A good example of this approach was when I was a project manager for a team assigned to write a Web time reporting application. This was just one of a number of project management and people management hats I was wearing at the same time. I met formally with the project team on a weekly basis for the first two months, as well as informally a number of times throughout the week.

That routine was fine until the last few weeks of the project. We started to encounter some testing problems, and the project started to trend over schedule. Just like Chi, the team members started to withdraw somewhat, since they did not want to report bad news. In turn, I started to become uncertain of exactly what work was being completed. So I switched to "Mr. Micromanager." I informed the team that we would have an informal status meeting on a daily basis.

My style became more task-oriented, and I started to assign small increments of work to be completed every day. I felt we needed to do this because the team was not providing me proactive feedback, and there was too much opportunity for confusion in the chaos. The result was that both the project team and I became focused. I was also comfortable that I knew what was going on.

Sometimes you have to micromanage
I gave this same advice to Chi. In our conversation, she said that she was uncomfortable because she didn't know what was going on in the last chaotic days of the project. This is understandable since there is usually an increase in activity when a project is ready to go live. Her initial concern that she didn't want to be a micromanager might generally be well founded.

However, there are times when you need to assign work and get feedback on a very frequent basis. This is usually the case if you have a major short-term crunch of work to complete. It's especially relevant if your project team isn't providing the short-term feedback you need in order to understand exactly where the project is. I think it's fine to tell your team that you need to be a micromanager on a temporary basis just to get through the crunch. As long as that's not your typical management style, your team will usually understand and put up with the additional scrutiny for the brief duration.

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