6 Facts about Project Planning Micro-Managers

December 21, 2012

We all have horror stories of micro-managers to tell. Like kids sitting around a campfire, we tell our ghostly stories of atrociousness to try and scare the wits out of each other. We compare notes about micro-managers we have worked for in the past, saying to someone who just finished their micro-manager story, “That’s nothing. I used to work for a guy who would put the conference call on mute and tell people exactly what to say.” [True story, by the way]. Here’s a story to tell the next time you get around the project management campfire:

It was a dark and stormy afternoon. The team gathered in theThe evil PowerPoint Pete pointing to you conference room to review their important but not mission critical presentation they would deliver to internal executives the next day. Footsteps approached the conference room. The door slowly creaked open.

Standing in the shadows was PowerPoint Pete, with a 90s-era projector in one hand and an oversized laptop bag on wheels towed by the other hand.  The team audibly gasped, with some letting out whimpers of desperation. The next hours were going to be filled with torture the likes of they had never seen before. He was there to review the team’s presentation and provide feedback.

PowerPoint Pete’s reputation for ‘nits’ preceded him. It was rumored he knew about project planning, but would take it to new lows with an overly precise obsession for finding just the perfect word. He would spend 15-20 minutes laboring over sentence structure that rivaled your most pernicious English College professor. His ruler ensured bullet point sizes were consistent and the space between them was precisely the same. The entire presentation was reworked to suit his personal opinions and preferences. Terrifying!

What is it about project planning managers that drives them to focus on the minutiae?

Even veterans who know better can fall into the trap. Below are reasons why this type of behavior emerges and things you can do to rehabilitate the micro-manager:

  1. It Could Be They Enjoy What They Do:  Let’s start by giving micro-managers the benefit of the doubt. It could be that they just really, really like what they do. They may have come up through the technical ranks of an organization and liked or grew accustomed to a hands-on approach to work.They dig into the details (aka micro-manage) to ensure they don’t miss out on anything new or exciting. They spend more time on the technical aspects of a project rather than finessing their project planning skills.What can you do to help someone like this if you work for them? Schedule regular blocks of time with them or lunch together every now and then to review what’s new and exciting. That way, you keep them up to speed with what’s going on with the team. That should give them enough of a fix to get back to concentrating on project planning.
  2. They Need to Have an Answer for Every Question:  Another Know-it-all's like to think they have answers to every questionreason managers get caught in the micro-management trap is that they don’t like saying “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure.”
    That’s understandable. Nobody likes that feeling, even though it does happen from time to time.Their way of ensuring they have an answer for everything is to get into an extreme amount of detail on your projects. This lends itself to micro-management. This is easily combated with frequent and relevant status or progress reports.One thing about project planning is that there is no shortage of status and progress reports available, so provide this type of manager with regular and consistent reports to give them the level of comfort they need. Assure them that if they don’t know they answer, they can give you a call and within minutes will know what is going on with the project.
  3. They Need Camaraderie: There’s nothing like rolling up your sleeves and working on a technical team. The feeling of accomplishment that occurs as a team breaks through technical issue after technical issue is exhilarating. You don’t quite get that same feeling when your day is all about project planning.Sure, you get a feeling of accomplishment when the plan comes together, but it’s not quite like the old days when you would hang out with the team. Help the micro-manager relive those feeling again by making sure they are included in your breakthroughs. Keep them up to speed with both the darkness created by an incessant technical problem and when the light appears at the end of the tunnel.
  4. They Feel They Can Do a Better Job: Some micro-managers believe they can do the job better than anyone else. They may have been extremely proficient at the task being accomplished in a prior position, perhaps as they came up through the technical ranks. They may even be considered an expert in a particular area.It’s hard to let someone else do a job they were previously proficient at. You may get the job done with absolutely acceptable quality; it just may take longer or not be at the level of perfection the micro-manager would like it to be.What can you do? Ask for their expert advice, insight or direction. They may know a lot about project planning, but what you are working on is really their specialty. Lean on them for their expertise and you will undoubtedly learn something while getting them to take a step or two back.
  5. They are Unsure about the Direction They Gave: Another reason people micro-manage is that they are not 100% sure about the direction they provide to you. They may come across as confident, but until they see progress being made, are unsure of what the outcome of their direction will be.The result is that they may frequently check in with you to provide necessary adjustments to your course. The best thing you can do in this scenario is provide them with frequent updates to your progress. Preempt them having to come and ask you for information. Go to them on your time to minimize their interruptions throughout the day.
  6. They May Not Understand their Job:  Someone newly promoted to a position of management or authority may not quite understand what that means. It takes time to learn about project planning and make the transition from ‘doing’ to ‘managing. ’ Their comfort zone may still be in the ‘doing’ side of projects, or managing people may not be a natural talent for them. This results in them working VERY closely with you to do your job. You can do someone like this a huge favor by letting them know how they can support you. Their value is not to help you do YOUR work, but rather to clear obstacles or ambiguities, plan next steps and deal with the politics of the project. This will allow you to keep your head down and get your work done.

We could spend all night around the campfire exchanging horror stories about micro-managers. Let’s learn from these stories and help them do their job better. They’ll appreciate your candor and you’ll appreciate the fact they are no longer breathing down your neck!


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