Micromanaging? Try Self Organization Instead.

Self organization makes managing easier and increases productivity. Here’s how to move toward self organization and away from micromanagement.

Written by Anton Skornyakov
Published on Mar. 19, 2024
Micromanaging? Try Self Organization Instead.
Image: Shutterstock / Built In
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An experienced sales manager has just been promoted from their previous role as the company’s top salesperson. In their old position, because the company was new and the staff was small, they did it all: researching potential leads, qualifying them, outreach, contract negotiation and closing.

4 Steps Toward Self Organization

  1. Delegate results, not tasks.
  2. Start with the results you want when delegating a project.
  3. Delegate projects in small segments rather than as an overwhelming whole.
  4. Provide feedback quickly because feedback is a teaching tool.

This person now manages a department of new hires who do what he used to do. Because the new hires don’t have the years of experience that their manager does, this manager wants to help them learn the ropes. They try to teach new hires how to do things by parsing out small and specific jobs for them to complete, research a thousand leads from a particular industry or qualify a hundred leads that your coworker collected, etc. They check the results and provide feedback.

In other words, they’re micromanaging

Many managers fall into this micromanagement trap. This means they coordinate everything from adapting to change to dealing with employee conflicts. This type of management doesn’t scale and only works with a small number of people. 

Here are four main guidelines to follow to gradually move your organization closer to self organization and away from micromanagement.

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Delegate Results, Not Tasks

When you delegate work, the most important part of the assignment is that the employee will communicate the result of their work. Ask yourself: How will you know the job was done well? What will be your evidence, what will you see, read or hear?

Don’t tell people what to do, but tell them how you will assess whether what they’ve done is good.

This leaves space for them to figure it out on their own and learn. Yes, this will take time, but the good news is the next time you ask them to create something similar, you’ll have a counterpart who is thinking the same way you do.


Start From the End

When considering what work you want to delegate, think about the immediate result you need and also about what you want your employees to learn in the future. For a self-organized system to work, employees need to learn more and more about how everything comes together to create a final result.

If you ask them to create a list of potential leads, they might get better at researching leads. If you ask them to research and qualify leads, they may learn that some of their researched leads aren’t qualifying and will adapt their research practices. Their learning will be more connected with the ultimate targeted result — getting a sale.

In theory, it would be best if you could just ask them to get to the final sale. However, if you overwhelm them with responsibility, they will fail and won’t learn anything. You need to find the right amount of responsibility to delegate at each moment.


Deliver Feedback Quickly 

Imagine learning to play the guitar and having to wait 15 minutes to hear the sound of the strings you strummed. How well would you learn? Waiting 15 seconds is hard enough. Waiting 15 minutes? No way. 

How quickly feedback comes plays a vital role in learning. With immediate feedback, we can still remember our decisions and identify what we need to change to improve. 

Imagine learning to play the guitar and having to wait 15 minutes to hear the sound of the strings you strummed. How well would you learn?

Research backs this up. In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, author Daniel Kahneman writes about how significant — and potentially lifesaving — instantaneous feedback can be. He gives an example comparing how quickly anesthesiologists and radiologists receive feedback.

Kahneman says that health monitoring tells anesthesiologists within minutes of their giving a patient a drug if their heartbeat is slowing too much or if their blood pressure jumps. This way, they can quickly get better at their job. In contrast, radiologists may not know how accurate their diagnoses are for months or even years because they’re only looking at X-rays, which are just one component of a patient’s medical workup. This delayed feedback makes it much harder for radiologists to improve their skills.

Organizations often hold meetings that highlight lessons learned several months after a project is complete. But it’s a lot like the radiologists and the scans. To learn from an X-ray, or in business or on a project, feedback has to be immediate. The speed of feedback makes all the difference.

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Delegate Projects in Small Segments

This is where your ability to break down work into small but still holistic results — something I call vertical slicing — plays a key role. When such slices are small and we work well together, we manage to finish them within a few days.

Often this is a straightforward thing. In sales, it could be asking your team to have successfully contacted the first five clients. This automatically includes researching and qualifying 100, then calling 20 to successfully speak to five of them in the end. But all of the tasks would be something for your team to figure out and coordinate.

When developing software in a new environment, this may mean creating small pieces of functionality that can be tried out by a user. Some patterns focus on reducing technical risk like a tracer bullet.

However, in projects that try to affect human behavior, such as improving processes or increasing cybersecurity, slicing work is more complicated.

Slicing work becomes more important the more you need to rely on your colleagues’ ability to adapt when plans change. It’s something most managers in the 21st century have to deal with and it is a skill that’s easy to learn, if you give it a try.

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