Helping your team succeed without micromanaging

by Jan Schiller

Interested in helping your team succeed without micromanaging? Telling your team what you want them to do and how to do it is the quickest way to kill innovation. Choose one, it’s really about helping your team succeed without micromanaging.

When I kick off a project or join in to rescue a struggling project, one of the most important things I can do is describe what the project is designed to accomplish. When I manage a project portfolio, I describe the strategy the portfolio is defined to deliver. Better yet, I ask the owner of the project or portfolio to define the expected accomplishment at kick-off. Defining the project’s result as crisply as possible ensures that when each team member draws an arrow from their quiver of deep skill sets, experience, talent, and knowledge, they know which direction to aim and are most likely to hit the bullseye. I have described what the team should focus on and not a word about how they should go about it. 

The target is the ‘what.’ Minimum viable product, potentially shippable product, result, outcome, and project’s product are all ‘what’s. The process, technique, procedure, method, or methodology is the ‘how.’ 

If you are working in an agile environment, the product owner should describe the minimum viable product, and the scrum master may coach the team on the agile process the team has adopted. Or, your project’s executive stakeholder describes the expected result, and the project manager describes the path to get there, further refined by the project scope

Imagine your project’s goal was to provide a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner for your family and friends. I might refine the ‘what’ by specifying the number of people joining for dinner and that the meal should be ready for everyone to consume at the same time, with hot foods served hot and cold foods served cold. Is describing the ‘what’ enough for you to delight your guests? 

If this is your first foray into providing Thanksgiving dinner, you might need a little help with the ‘how.’ Pull out those recipes from the internet or your family’s treasured recipe book. You might want to make a plan that helps you visualize what items must be prepared at what times so all of the items are on the table at the same time. Watching a pro prepare the meal will solidify your understanding, whether that be your parent, friend, or chef on your favorite food network. 

If you have been preparing the Thanksgiving feast for decades, you are very capable of doing it all from memory and without the risk of a dry turkey or having to postpone dinner because the turkey is not done at the desired dinner hour. Imagine I’m in the kitchen with you, handing you a stack of recipes and demanding that you follow them, hovering over your every move, criticizing the size of the turkey you selected, telling you when to baste the turkey and with what substance, making it impossible for you to try out that wonderful dry-brining technique you just learned about, and dictating what tool to use to mash the potatoes. How would you feel? Micromanaged? Demeaned? Wondering why I thought you were so incapable when you know you are not? 

Would you feel like you even had to think if I told you to prepare a delightful Thanksgiving dinner and then proceeded to guide you at every step of the way? I suggest that if you are guiding your team at every step of the way, you should skip telling them the goal because you are going to ensure they get to the goal and get there your way. 

Consider the joy of seeing your team flourish because they are choosing the path to that crisply defined goal and learn if that path leads to less-than-stellar results. Does Thanksgiving need to include a turkey? Would a chicken do if that helped you stay within budget or met expectations? Perhaps your stakeholders are vegetarian, where including poultry would not delight them at all.

There is a time and a place for telling a team what to do and how to do it. Those team members that are still growing in their skill set might become more confident more quickly due to that structure as they learn and apply new skills. Teams embarking on a totally new solution may need the guidance from external sources of subject matter expertise, where their first step is applying a pattern or simply their best thinking. 

Your team can succeed without micromanaging, but you should choose your words wisely if you want to encourage the best thinking and results from your team. 


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