The Micromanagement Flywheel

A phenomenon that I have witnessed occurring to tech executives in all sizes of companies and with varying degrees of experience is that they trigger increased scrutiny and meddling. I find that most CEOs out there do not default to micromanagement—they genuinely are interested in entrusting the R&D organization to an executive that they rely on. Nevertheless, when eventually something goes off track, and they do not handle it correctly, they are, in fact, beckoning for the CEO to swoop in.

Unfortunately, the triggering of micromanagement rarely makes things better. After all, had micromanagement worked most of the time, we wouldn’t decry it. Due to that, things tend to stay the same or get worse, resulting in the manifestation of the micromanagement flywheel:

Lack of transparency: The CEO and sometimes the rest of the executive suite are not appropriately updated about the progress of work by R&D. Initially, this often triggers slight anxiety or nervousness, but because managers do not want to micromanage as described above, they just sit tight and hope things will turn out fine. Transparency here might mean that you, as the CTO/VP of Engineering, communicate in what you feel is the right way, but the other side doesn’t understand enough what’s going on in practice.

Deadline missed: Most people would tolerate poor transparency if it never came with poor results. After all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. However, eventually, things will go astray. For some CEOs, a single occurrence might be enough to trigger the next stage, but others might wait until things happen a couple more times. Unfortunately, that might mean that by the time things are brought to your attention, the other side feels like they’ve suffered for too long.

Boss Anxiety: If there’s something you do not want, it’s an anxious and nervous CEO. Try and consider things from the other side’s perspective, though, and see what you think: You (the CEO) have let this person do things the way they saw fit. You might not have a technical background and just know that roughly 30-50% of your burn rate (on average) is spent on R&D. You only hear about things that go wrong when it’s too late, and you have to face clients, the board, or whoever else to break them the bad news. Seen like that, how many of you would let things continue the same way?

Boss micromanages: After the last straw has been reached, the CEO will start meddling in whatever way they prefer. The CTO might be turned into a glorified manager, with project management running de facto by someone else. As this is not likely to improve performance, communication, autonomy, or agency, things will not be adequately communicated, and we’ll be back where we started.

Breaking the Cycle

Reading this breakdown might help you realize that you are experiencing this (it might also make you realize that you are doing the same to those who report to you, but that’s a matter for a different article). Lucky for you, I’ve found that there are a couple of techniques for breaking out of this vicious cycle and regaining productivity.

First, you should actively work on how you communicate up. You might feel like you’re sharing information and updates about progress, but those might register as gibberish for the CEO. Rather than zooming in on specific bugs or libraries or talking about technicalities, you should be speaking “business.” Since you’ve hopefully moved upstream and possess knowledge and context about the work you’re doing, you should be able to tell what business implications any troubles or setbacks you face will have. Regularly inform the CEO of progress, raise flags when it leaves the executive team time to come up with contingencies or preventive measures, and not when failure is set in stone.

Another helpful step you can take is to increase your team’s Product Mastery, specifically when it comes to the aforementioned context. When you are not the only one that understands the business implications and impact of your projects, then others in your team will be able to sound an alert in a timely manner when they can tell an issue might affect the company, its business, or commitments. It also means that they will be able to make at least some of the dozens of micro-decisions they have to do every day a tiny bit better, thus lowering the risk of a deadline to be missed at all. Provide your team with context and a broad perspective so that they won’t need your micromanagement, and thus, eventually, you won’t be micromanaged as well.

Lastly, if you find that you’re lodged on the flywheel and can’t break away, you should consider getting an outsider’s perspective to help. An experienced adviser can unstick situations that both parties can’t change due to momentum. I’ve seen cases where clients told me, “you just said exactly what I’ve been saying for months, but they listened to you.” Sometimes, that’s just what it takes.