Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Monday, July 29, 2013

Monday Management - common management problems: the micro-manager

This post continues my common management problem series with a look at the micro-manager, one of the most common reasons for management failure.

All staff know the micro-manager. This is the person who cannot let go real control, who tries to set, control and check every activity. Lacking authority and responsibility, staff cease to be independent workers and instead become no more than arms and legs for the manager.

One common symptom of micro-management can be found in the complaint by managers that staff will not take responsibility, that they have to do everything themselves. When I hear this complaint, I automatically check for micro-management. Most times I find it.

With some managers, micro-management is a deeply entrenched feature of their personality, a need to control. There is often little you can do with such managers to improve the situation. If they are important in their position because of their knowledge or particular skill-sets, you may just have to work around them. Otherwise, you are better off removing them, or at least reducing their staff management role.

The partial or inconsistent micro-manager can be a particular problem, simply because they are harder to spot.

Often insecure, this type of manager would not usually see themselves as a micro-manager. If queried, they would say (correctly) that they do give staff autonomy.

The core problem with these managers is that they are inconsistent. They stand back in most cases, but then intervene on an irregular basis. Having allocated a task with a report back deadline, they then ask before the due date, have you started or finished this task?

The staff member in question who has been trying to set his or her own priorities may not even have started the task. Now he/she finds a worried manager creating worry in the mind of the staff member. Suddenly the staff member has to shift focus, even though something else may suffer.

This can have exactly the same effect as the more extreme micro-manager cases in that staff take less responsibility for their own work, pushing responsibility up-stairs to their manager.

From an overall management perspective, it is easier to help the partial micro-manager improve performance, subject to one qualification: the problem has to lie with the manager, not the firm itself.

Too often, partial or inconsistent micro-management by one manager is in fact a symptom of, a response to, micro-management at the next level up. In worst cases, micro-management across the firm may be a cascade effect from the CEO or managing partner. Here we have a systemic problem.

One difficulty with micro-management is that it can yield high performance simply because the manager in question is so driven. However, it also has great dangers.

I saw a simple example of this recently at project level. The manager in question had to go on leave in the middle of a critical project roll-out. While the rest of the project team had the skills required to continue the roll-out, the project struggled because team members did not know everything that the manager had been doing, nor did they have the authority to take over key elements of the manager's role.

This case illustrates the practical problems that can arise should the micro-manager suddenly leave the scene.

At a more macro-level, the firm suffers because the bad drives out the good.

Unable to work in a micro-management environment, staff leave. Those who remain are less likely to be able or willing to accept responsibility and to provide the drive that the firm may need. Remove the micro-manager or managers, and the firm may go into sudden decline as a consequence.

I have stated the problem, but what on earth can we do about it as a personal level? The starting point for both the micro-manager and the staff affected is to ask why, why does this happen? At my next post in this series, I will look at this questions, the possible answers and responses.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Monday Management - Introducing Common Management Problems

Some years ago I began a series of blog posts on the theme common management problems – and what to do about them. The posts drew from my practical experience as a manager and a consultant. I wrote them because I had found that many people who had acquired some form of management role actually didn’t know what to do in a practical sense.

The problem is especially acute in professional services because so much of the work is individual: individual in the way work is structured, individual in relation to clients, individual in the way performance is measured. There is limited scope to learn how to manage by actually doing. Problems exist even in those areas of professional services where projects and project management are the norm.

Project management is not the same as management, although many project management techniques are also management techniques. A professional discipline in its own right, project management centres on individual projects. These may be simple or complex. They may involve a single person or a much larger team of full and part time people. However, they do not necessarily provide you with the skills required to manage a team with functional responsibilities involving multiple activities with varying time horizons, where the focus is on the achievement of broader results rather than individual project outcomes.

Lack of management skills and experience may be an especial problem in professional services, but it is not limited to that sector. Management is a craft, not a science. It has to be learned through practice. Across sectors, the thinning of management structures has reduced the opportunities for people to grow into management through progressive learning by doing. The problem is compounded by the growing role of specialists in senior management roles and by modern management command and control structures that have reduced the authority and scope of responsibility of individual managers.

Interestingly, the widespread adoption of project based approaches within organisations has further compounded the problem. This may sound counter-intuitive. Surely these approaches play an important role in improving organisational effectiveness? Well yes, but many areas that have moved to project based approaches end by displaying many of the cultural features to be found in professional services. There is the same emphasis on individual matters or assignments; performance assessment becomes narrower; it becomes more difficult to attract attention too, or resources for, issues that fall outside current assignments.

Staff have always complained about managers and management. However, the volume of complaints seems to have risen significantly over the last two decades. Importantly, managers themselves complain about the difficulties they experience in managing properly, in simply coping with the demands placed upon them. A surprising number of those in apparently managerial roles express actual dislike for the management process. Their focus is on their personal performance, on the things that they have to do themselves. The need to deal with people, to be responsible for others with varying needs and personalities, is seen as an impediment to their own performance.

If project management is not the same as management, nor is administration. All managerial roles involve a degree of administration, another thing that many professionals complain about, but that is only part of the manager’s role. Administration focuses on rules and systems, while management focuses on the organisation of resources and especially people to set and achieve objectives and to undertake specific activities.

Finally, management is not the same as leadership, although a measure of leadership is a necessary part of management. A leader may or may not be a manager. Indeed, many of those who see themselves as leaders are in fact extremely bad managers! There is a certain irony in the parallel rise in emphasis on leadership and governance at a time when management as such has been in decline. These trends are connected, for governance is a control on leadership that has become more important as management has declined.

Can management be learned? Yes. Like any other craft, management skills can be learned, although management abilities (the final capacity to do) will vary between people. The keys are knowledge and practice. For that reason, I am drawing together and updating my previous posts to provide practical guidance to all those who wish to improve their management skills.


I was asked about the current fad for activity based working and the associated idea of bossless teams. How do these fit with the type of argument I am mounting?

Later I will write something on both. However, for the present, activity based working is popular in certain larger professional services or certain financial firms where work is predominantly individual, or involves small variable teams. The term really relates to office design as much as it does to the organisation of work, although the first affects the second. It can be a productive approach.

Bossless teams rely on particular group dynamics and types of work and on the surrounding culture to be effective. I think that they actually first appeared in certain manufacturing activities, although I stand to be corrected there. Again they can work in particular circumstances, although in the end there is always a boss!

In terms of the fit with my argument, the best way of organising work will always depend on the type of work. I don't think that either detract from my focus on the importance of management.

I would be interested in reactions from readers in terms of their own experience with these different forms.