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Hewlett Packard and the Many Curious Paradoxes of Micro-Management

Posted by Bob Warfield on May 8, 2012

I just finished reading Fortune’s massive write up on the ills at Hewlett Packard. What an amazing story, and as I was going through it, I kept seeing the same thing repeated over and over again: Micro-management trumping Leadership and creating a disaster in its wake.  Instinctively, we all know Micro-management is something bad, but the first paradox for me is that we need this term.  What are the variations of Management that are good?  I prefer to contrast the term “Manager” with “Leader”, and ascribe all the bad things about Micro-management to Management in general.  It’s unfair, I know, and it doesn’t apply to all organizations, but I’m helpless to avoid it because I’m an entrepreneur and not an employee.

What then, is the difference in HP’s case between Management (or Micromanagement as I prefer) and the Leadership that should have been available?

In another post, I characterized Micromanagement as forcing people to do things not because they believed they were the right things to do, but because the manager had sufficient Political Capital to make the employee do what was desired.  This seems to have been the order of the day in the HP article if you read it through the lens of this definition.  There were executives at all levels who acted on enforcing their decisions largely by means of political capital expenditure and without the necessary leadership step of making the hearts and minds who actually had to execute these plans believe.  What made the Political Capital bill much more expensive is that this went on through a succession of leaders.  The descriptions of all the nastiness, snarkiness, hubris, and ego are all symptomatic of individuals who were so certain they were right and so certain they were entitled to make others obey, that they need not do the work of persuasion.

In fairness, perhaps this was coupled with a sense of desperation; that there might not be time for persuasion; and that with that certainty comes the notion that since the plan was going to work out spectacularly well, persuasion would come later.  The results could speak for themselves and would persuade even the harshest critics of the wisdom behind the plan.  Such reasoning is obviously circular and even a bit lazy in retrospect, but we’ve all been guilty of it at one time or another.

Another of the curious paradoxes of Micro-management is it can only work in a very few cases.  The ideal opportunity for Micro-management success involves these ingredients:

–  The situation and group you intend to Micro-manage must be small enough relative to your talent that you can be right personally making every decision of consequence.

–  The individuals have to be willing to be Micro-managed so that the consumption of Political Capital relative to its replenishment can proceed at a net positive.  Perhaps it is an assembly line job where Micro-management is such an established part of the job that it is totally expected.  Perhaps the individuals are in a training mode of some kind and you are a recognized expert who they all look up to and respect.

–  You have to be right often enough to assist in the replenishment of Political Capital.

–  If any of these ingredients are going to be missing, you had better make sure that the application of Micro-management is so brief, with so few people, and affects so little of what’s going on that you don’t use up too much of your Political Capital.  For example, it is often more important to have a decision that is sub-optimal than no decision at all.  An insightful executive will realize when they are faced with no decision and will Micro-manage the sub-optimal substitute as needed.  It will be a rare executive practicing Micro-management who strikes the proper balance and doesn’t overdo it because Micro-management is addictive.

Unless you disagree with that set of ingredients, you can see that Micro-management is a tactic that can only be employed very sparingly.  The type of people who tolerate it are not high in an organization.  The HP story seems to be one where the Team has so little cohesion, that they’re all trying to Micro-manage each other incessantly.  Each new CEO is tasked with immediate transformation, dives in and tries to Micro-manage some momentous decision to fruition, but is thwarted:

–  Because they are new, they have little Political Capital.

–  Because the long timers have seen these tactics fail again and again, they insist on a higher Political Capital price each go round.

–  Ultimately, the Political Capital is insufficient to pay the bill, so the managers become insubordinant, unresponsive, and they flip the bozo bit.  That’s always the cost of an overdrawn Political Capital account, and it leads to worse.  Once you default on Political Capital, it’s much harder to replenish.

Another irony or paradox of Micro-management is the type of people who practice it are often those who should most readily understand its failings.  They’re those who’ve exceled in some way.  They are the brilliant young leaders of new startups.  Or the successful old warhorses of companies like Hewlett Packard or SAP.  These people know they’re good, and it is that knowledge that bolsters their certainty to the point where they’re unwilling to invest in Leading.  They’re too impatient.  Once you know you’re right, you shouldn’t have to persuade others.  It is their deficiency if they can’t understand your plan.  They need to get on board with it because the train is leaving.  This is important stuff and we don’t have time for the laggards.

I believe HP fell into a culture of Micro-management through no fault of their own.  If Micro-managing leaders jerk the organization through manuevers without ensuring true alignment of hearts and minds (not just lip service), it breaks down the bonds of a Team and creates silos in a hurry.  Once you break apart an organization that large, and do so over a long enough period of time, you create problems that cannot be solved quickly.  Even Leaders will be tempted to force change through Micro-management because they know results will be expected before they can deliver true Leadership.  That’s a great pity, because one of the roles of the Leaders at the top has to be to take that kind of pressure until results can be produced.  A little Micro-management of big issues will have to be tolerated, but at the same time, room has to be made for Leadership principles to take root again.

It’ll be interesting to see if Meg Whitman is able to pull that off.  Her predecessors and Board have left her facing an uphill battle.

2 Responses to “Hewlett Packard and the Many Curious Paradoxes of Micro-Management”

  1. I just finished reading that sprawling piece over at Fortune, and it could’ve been twice as useful at 1/3rd the size.

    On to your substantial criticism. I agree most with this:

    > [the] group you intend to Micro-manage must be small enough

    This is the heart of every criticism of this management strategy.
    It only works at a very small scale–and it often doesn’t even work then!

    HP is a massive organization.
    The types of problems it faces are very much proportional to its size.
    The mistakes that it’s made ever since Lew Platt left and Carly Fiorina was hired are major, major mistakes.

    I hold to the dictum that we must be twice as smart to fix a problem as when we created it.

    For this reason, I fear that there isn’t sufficient intelligence on the planet to fix the problems at HP.
    And for _that_ reason, I mourn on behalf of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard.

    • Tamaraxmack, thanks for joining the discussion.

      In this case what’s interesting is that the group described in the article as having been micro-managed was the CEO’s direct staff, and the other group was the Board micro-managing each other and the CEO. While this problem may run much deeper into the organization, let’s give it the benefit of a doubt and assume the sub-organized were led by leaders, at least below the CEO’s direct staff. Then the group was small enough, but the other conditions were not met.

      The counterexample to the idea that there isn’t enough intelligence on the planet is Steve Jobs, who was able to fix Apple in short order upon his return. Did he do that by leading or micro-managing? Opinions vary. I tend to think some form of leadership was at work and that his subordinates passionately wanted what he wanted. It’s hard to believe Micro-management could’ve resulted in that level of success. Certainly Jobs demonstrated time and again that he knew how to excite the passion of the marketplace for his visions. That is very much an example of Leadership over the Micro-Management of a market that was Microsoft’s legacy.

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