Is Micromanaging Always Bad?

Micromanaging usually gets a bad rap, for good reason, but there’s one area that I can think of where it isn’t “completely bad” - building great products. I’m not saying that micromanagement is needed to create great products, but rather, that it’s an area where it’s a viable strategy [1].

There are many examples of where this is the case:

  1. Steve Jobs and the first iterations of Apple’s products. Jobs famously micromanaged the design and development of many of Apple’s products, from the shade of white that was used to the choosing of the material that would be used to build Apple’s physical stores.

  2. Jerry Seinfeld and Seinfeld. “The show was successful because I micromanaged it—every word, every line, every take, every edit, every casting. That’s my way of life.”

  3. Jiro Ono and Sukiyabashi Jiro. Being an omakase chef means delivering incredible product day in and day out, from the choosing of the fish, to the temperature of the rice, and presentation to the customer. Ono spent years training and supervising his staff on how to cook rice before they could even touch fish.

There’s no denying that these three individuals (1), built great products and (2), were micromanagers. Was it necessary for them to micromanage in order to build great products? I would say yes, and at the very least it increased the probability of creating great products. Why?

Because, to build great things, you need to have a vision, and vision cannot be easily shared. To bring the vision to life, the visionary typically needs to be deeply ingrained in its production. Without the visionary directing and micromanaging, the end product will likely have many inconsistencies and misalignments.

It makes sense to micromanage when you’re doing things that don’t necessarily have to scale. Going back to our examples, you only need to build a flagship product once; you only need to write a unique episode once; and the essence of omakase is to focus on the customer’s experience, not to scale and become a franchise.

But the second you need to do something that has to scale, micromanaging will almost always lead to failure. It just so happens that most end up having to manage processes and work that need to scale, which is where micromanaging becomes ineffective. Also, people generally don’t like being micromanaged. This combination is what gives micromanaging a bad reputation.

The follow up thought here is, if there are situations where micromanaging is effective, how can one do it in such a way that it doesn’t hurt morale?

[1] One of my favorite sayings is that there are many ways to win.