Monday, July 29, 2013

Monday Forum - micro-management, the evils of performance measurement & whatever else you like!

Today's Monday Forum focuses on management. I leave it in your hands as to the direction we go!

Over on Managing the Professional Services Firm, Monday Management - common management problems: the micro-manager, continues the Monday Management series. Have you experienced micro-management? How did you cope?

In a responses to Sunday Essay - economists and the decline of economics, Winton Bates added some background experience on the UNE agricultural economics experience. I wonder what your views are on the decline of the traditional disciplines? Am I just an old fuddy-duddy? I suppose, and this is far worse, that I might be that and still right!

Winton,however, did far more. He sent me a Harvard Business School working paper on the dangers of goal setting. This was a wonderful gift, and one that I will come back to in a later post.

I have often written about the dangers and misuse of goal setting and performance measurement. Consider a simple example,

If each business wants to set stretch targets, to do well above average, then it follows that most will fail. That's fine, but what happens if it's our superannuation funds at stake? Has Australian super become almost a zero-sum game in which most of us must lose?

I leave it in your hands to comment. Just keep a loose focus on management, financial performance or indeed any form of performance!


I had been vaguely aware of the OECD's Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO) project. The OECD describes it in these terms:

The OECD is carrying out a Feasibility Study for the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes. The purpose of this Feasibility Study is to see if it is practically and scientifically feasible to assess what students in higher education know and can do upon graduation.

More than a ranking, the AHELO assessment aims to be direct evaluation of student performance at the global level and valid across diverse cultures, languages and different types of institutions.

A full scale AHELO would be a a “low stakes” voluntary international comparative assessment designed to provide higher education institutions with feedback on the learning outcomes of their students and which they can use to foster improvement in student learning outcomes.

The thing that drew it to my attention were favourable references to the test as a way of forcing competitive standards on universities, citing in favourable terms the widespread and accepted use of standardised testing in schools. That makes it sound a little like a variant of MySchool for universities.

Postscript two

Comments still open. Two follow up questions from the discussion:

  • Is goal setting at personal level fundamentally different from goal setting at organisational level?
  • Well, not really from the questions, but the NSW Government has just released a new Performance Development Framework. Do you understand it? What do you think?

To set a context for the last question, this is the opening blurb:

The Public Service Commission’s task is to drive the most significant reforms the NSW public sector has seen in a generation to build a high-performance culture and enhance the sector’s ability to meet the community’s service needs.

Underpinning a high performance culture is an effective system for managing individual, team and organisational performance.

This framework contains the essential elements and mandatory guidelines for agency performance development systems and sets the approach for managing all aspects of employee performance in the NSW public sector.



Evan said...

Goals work well for the short-term and what we can control.

Hence all the stuff about athletes where the rules are simple and relatively straight forward and the measures are clear and short term.

For things that are complicated and can involve the longer term, well, things get more complicated and goals less helpful.

So I think we can choose relatively short-term goals to focus on with an eye on the bigger picture or longer term destination. I think goals can be useful but we need to be ready to junk them.

In management I guess this means getting 'buy in' to the larger stuff rather than the immediate.

Jim Belshaw said...

Sport is an interesting case. Leaving aside the drugs in sport issue, does Australia's approach to setting targets for Olympic measures actually work or does it distort?

Short termism is a problem in goal setting. In a project or a specific piece of work, you have to have work targets. Complete this by then. But some short term goals like achieve this quarterly profit target can distort badly.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

Your linked blog post on micro-management is written almost entirely as if such a practice is always a 'bad thing'? I disagree with that. There are a number of counter-interpretations for micro-management:

1)I have no proof for this but am willing to bet that staff turnover is higher, the lower you go down the corporate tree. A corollary of this is that corporate identity, aims, and outlook are more strongly entrenched (read: effective) the higer up you go.

2) It is human nature to question the approach (or timing) required to complete a particular task. But this assumes the staff have complete access to the wider aims of the company, and the competing priorities, and the 'next step' after completion of the particular task.

3) A lot of time can be wasted re-explaining (then re-re-explaining) just why a particular approach is used. The most common mistake I've observed with staff is the presumption that their way is better than that proscribed by the manager. This is actually quite insulting as it assumes the manager has not, ever in years past, tried then discarded the approach favoured by the staff.

4) Checking halfway (or whatever irks you) through the week that a task is underway when the deadline is (say) Friday may be annoying to the staff involved - but not so annoying as getting to Friday and finding it has not been completed. It also carries an assumption that the manager has no idea of the competing tasks which have been assigned to the staff, and even less idea of what other tasks may be added in the intervening days. It's the old "everyone wants to be boss" syndrome - and it doesn't work very well.

5) Even in my own tiny retirement business I make it one of my very first homilies to new staff that while I very much appreciate suggested improvements to the way we operate, the new staff member must also pay me the courtesy of considering that current methods and practices did not just grow willy-nilly - i.e. there's probably a very good, tried and tested, reason as to why task A is to be completed (in a specific fashion, and) before task B and most certainly why task A should not be ignored until tomorrow. It's another syndrome: "the boss is a silly old fart; what does it matter in the bigger scheme (of which I'm probably completely unaware)"

Summary: I think if you find a micro-manager the first thing to ask yourself is just why he's adopted that approach - not just label or dismiss it as a 'bad' habit.

I could go on, but I gotta go micro-manage my business :)

ps also, mostly agree with what Evan said

Winton Bates said...

Hi Evan and kvd
I am trying to come to grips with this stuff.
I found the article Jim has linked to via an article by Ray Williams on the Psychology Today blog.
I would be interested in your views on what Williams has to say.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi kvd. That was almost the classic micro-manager response! The best form of management varies depending upon circumstances. I am talking about a patterns that apply regardless of circumstance.

I think as a general statement, the rate of staff turnover actually increases as you go up the corporate tree!

Consider a unit that you are managing. That unit is part of a bigger organisation and must operate within the bounds set by that organisation. Your job is to explain those bounds, to set tasks and to organise work to get best results. You have staff of varying degrees of experience and ability. They vary in drive and personal circumstances. You want them to take responsibility for their jobs, to report to you if there are problems. You also don't want to be surprised, to be let down so you don't deliver on your own commitments. So you need to be close to the work. By implication, you have to monitor, but it's the way you do it.

As a general statement, micro-management is simply inefficient even though a driven micro-manager can get immediate results. It sucks responsibility to the micro-manager, reduces staff willingness to take responsibility.

I am out of time this morning. But, and just to throw a little petrol in the direction of my favourite micro-manager, the problem is worst in small business.

Anonymous said...

Jim, I note with your "almost a classic" comment that you do not say it is wrong per se :)

A few other things I'd throw into the pot (or on the fire if you will!)- some of which depend upon your definition of what actually constitutes micro-management:

1) Years ago I was employed on a contract to provide a framework for the presentation of some Navy service manuals. Not to write the damn things, just to reformat and highlight in an entirely automatic (re)production of same, so they were a) consistent, and b) easier to follow and 'tick off'. Think of a Sea King helicopter, the book (books!) for which run to thousands of pages. It is not sufficient to say to the maintainer "fix this helo". You need step by step, thou shall not deviate, inspections by senior supervisor at here, here, here - sort of stuff.

I found it all quite overwhelming in the detailed specifications - but not so much when you think of that dreadful Nias crash which (among a series of unrelated calamities which added to the toll) boiled down to a missing split pin on a critical control rod. Summary: I believe the Armed Forces are past masters at micro-management - and with very good reason.

2) Another client ran a quite large (for a small business) smash repair business. He was treated with both amusement and some derision for (among other things) his workshop layout, with its yellow lines for the exact positioning of each vehicle (so he could fit more in and with safety margins for workers) and his white painted silhouettes of tools on each wall (so you could actually find the tool quickly) and his insistence that any spillage be immediately attended to by the person spotting it (safety, fire risk).

He had a habit of explaining himself once, warning once, then sacking. But then he also had the best safety record in a quite dangerous industry, and the highest throughput, and was in constant demand for industry lectures - some of which I attended.

3) Another client ran a trucking firm of about 120 semis. His insistence upon mileage checks and travelling times, and pulling down engines with the driver/mechanics saved him enormous $amounts just in tire wear, not to mention unplanned servicing, and breakdowns the other side of the Black Stump on the road from Cairns to Adelaide. (Not that I know anything about trucks, but you can apparently tell a lot about a driver from times, and tire wear, and worn engine components).

4)In my own business the ONLY health and safety issue which proceeded to a (quite) significant claim against my insurance came as the direct result of a relatively new employee disregarding my specific instructions. This was readily admitted by said employee, but that didn't erase the 'black mark' on my Workers Comp file.

Not all micro-managing happens in a tidy professional office with the manager at the tall desk up front (Although I certainly accept that appears to be your primary interest) And lastly, quite simply, I would politely submit that not all micro-managing is a 'bad' thing.

A couple of things in your own comment:

1) "to report to you if there are problems" - assumes that the staff definition of "problem" equals the firm's or the manager's definition.

2) I surprised by your comment that staff churn gets greater the higher up you go. But that should not be taken that I dispute your statement - more simply not what I would have expected.

Have a lovely day! I shall now chase up Winton's reference - I always find his thoughts instructive.


Evan said...

Re Williams' article.

I think he is a bit unfair to Covey.

The goal setting literature does emphasise being realistic (the usual acronym being SMART). This of course is a bit of a cop out - if the goal isn't achieved then it wasn't realistic for one reason or another.

HIs reductionist pleasure-pain/fear psychology is wrong. (He is not alone in this error.)

I think he is a bit unfair to the goal setters. Lots of them talk about goals serving your wider values and choosing carefully what goals you aim for. Corporates are probably a good deal less subtle and ethical I guess.

As to being in the now. Our longings, regrets, memories, fantasies, visions, plans and everything else all occur now. He doesn't understand this. He is not alone in this misunderstanding.

Overall I think it is pretty sloppy and confused. Lots of the goal setting literature emphasises worthwhile aims and being caredul what you wish for. And his advice about intentions has all the problems of change that he levelled against goal setting. But I do agree with what I think is his basic point: goals should be realistic and serve worthwhile ends.

However I hang out in the self development world. I can believe that the corporate world, which seems to be what he is talking about, is a good deal less concerned with realism and ethics.

Anonymous said...

Try micromanagerial CEO/Board Chairs of certain theatre companies, and then try prising the reins from the clutching hands of said persons when their terms are up, and then try being the poor bugger who has to try to reinvigorate the almost totally deskilled and demotivated work force. No names, no packdrill, of course.

Jim Belshaw said...

kvd, fire extinguisher at the ready, you shouldn't confuse micro-management with attention to detail. Some of the worst micro-managers I have seen are actually hopeless at detail or any form of real rigour. Now taking your examples

The manual example is a classic example of a project area where you need great attention to detail, along with defined check and re-check processes. This generally has to be still done in tightish time constraints.

Say you have a micro manager on the project team He has two subject specialists working for him each with multiple deadlines, each knowing more in their content area than the manager. They have limited time and have scheduled as best they can. The micro manager rushes in and demands detailed reports. Suddenly they are reporting, satisfying, convincing.

On case two, that is not micro management either. The issue of derision, of resistance, is a different issue. I informed, you were required to do. But I bet you that when he was comfortable he let his people get on the with the job. I bet you too that he listened to worked feedback. That's not micro management.

Case three is not micro-management either. It is insistence on very specific things.

And on case four, here we have a worker who disobeyed a specific instruction. Again, that's not a micro management issue in the way i am talking about it.

I did have a lovely day!

Jim Belshaw said...

Evan, I think that I would agree with you that we need to distinguish between organisational and corporate goals and that Williams mixes the together.

If we focus just on individual goals, what do you see as the risks?

Jim Belshaw said...

Last anon, shudder is all I can say.

Anonymous said...

Jim I completely accept what you are trying to state; I now take it that the term "micro-management" is mostly an employee-driven term, invented as shorthand for 'that which disturbs my own view of how I wish to do my work'.

The generic examples you give could each, as easily, be rebutted by the particular 'generic manager' in question. But I guess we'll never hear his/her views because, dare I suggest, it is usually the 'manager' whose performance is under measure.

Is this because everybody's simply given up on actually getting employees to just do what they're directed to do? Or as you more succinctly put it on your management blog: "staff cease to be independent workers and instead become no more than arms and legs for the manager"

- as if that's arbitrarily and always a "bad thing".

ps and I need more petrol :)

Evan said...

The troubles I see are forgetting you need to know the steps in the process, narrowing of focus, marginalising ethics and creativity

Jim Belshaw said...

Evan, a brief comment because I wish to pour high octane fuel all over kvd!

I agree with your points. There is a very interesting ethical professional question, this may be a sidetrack, in regard to your work. In ethical terms, how far do you go as a coach in providing solutions as opposed to facilitation?

Evan said...

To the point where the person is energised.

To the point where the person feels confident to try stuff for themselves.

Enough to alleviate feelings of defeat and hopelessness.

When the problem is lack of knowledge and/or ways to access the relevant knowledge.

Jim Belshaw said...

kvd, I am now poring high octane fuel all over you with taper ready.

You wrote: "Jim I completely accept what you are trying to state; I now take it that the term "micro-management" is mostly an employee-driven term, invented as shorthand for 'that which disturbs my own view of how I wish to do my work'.

That is absolutely crap. I write from both perspectives and more especially from that of manager. You point has nothing to do with my argument, a management style

You wrote: "The generic examples you give could each, as easily, be rebutted by the particular 'generic manager' in question. But I guess we'll never hear his/her views because, dare I suggest, it is usually the 'manager' whose performance is under measure."

This, too, is absolute crap. Obviously you have to look at things from both sides. But having interviewed multiple micro managers as well as their staff, I can tell you that its a real problem. In fact, staff are often very vulnerable with a micro manager.

You wrote: "Is this because everybody's simply given up on actually getting employees to just do what they're directed to do? Or as you more succinctly put it on your management blog: "staff cease to be independent workers and instead become no more than arms and legs for the manager"

Accepting that circumstances vary, I think that's not a sensible comment. When, not always, staff become just arms and legs for their manager, out put usually suffers, mistakes increase.

Having poured the fuel and thrown the light, I now stand back!

Anonymous said...

Now Jim where would your Monday forum have been without somebody willing to take a contrarian stance?

It might interest you to know that your expectations of that smash repair shop (case 2) were spot on, but the thing you missed (or chose not to comment upon)in each of my examples was that the heavy-handed management styles created very strong ties of loyalty and professionalism (and 'ownership') in the workers who 'survived' - an echo of the Armed Services, I'd suggest.

People need to be empowered to 'own' a problem, not simply clock on, clock off. And, yes, you are right again when you say that micro-management is very evident in the small business sector; but that could possibly be because the chain of command is much shorter, and the effect of 'failure' - be that sloppy or incomplete work - is more evident, more harmful, more immediate.

Anyway, I've enjoyed being spit-roasted by a professional!


Jim Belshaw said...

Obviously I was stirring you, kvd! And you are right on the contrarian position. Removing the petrol, it's been a very useful discussion from my viewpoint. A little more tonight.

Winton Bates said...

Thanks for your response regarding Williams. I agree with you.

Unless you or Jim object, I plan to incorporate your comment into a post I am writing for my blog on the topic of personal goals.

Regarding the discussion between Jim and kvd on goals as a management tool, I feel happy to be able to observe from a distance, without getting involved.

Evan said...

You're most welcome to use what I say Winton.

Jim Belshaw said...

Look forward to reading it, Winton, Recognise that I haven't commented on the Keen post yet.

Winton Bates said...

Thanks Evan and Jim.
I have a post relating to this topic scheduled to be published next Tuesday at 11.30 am.
(That is to be consistent with my current goal of one post per week, which seems to provide me with about the right balance between contentment and accomplishment - although I am considering that at my time of life I should perhaps be passionately pursuing the goal of drifting aimlessly.)

Jim Belshaw said...

Not too much of that time of your life, if you don't mind, Winton! Look forward to the post. And how about a compromise? I argue for three posts a week and you argue me back to two!

Winton Bates said...

Jim, I have been trying to think of a witty response, but nothing is coming to mind.
My experiment in posting weekly and scheduling in advance is a compromise between one and zero over the next month. I will explain later.

Jim Belshaw said...

Better to have a couple rather than none, Winton.

Ramiro said...

This is cool!