Why do clients micromanage?
Micromanagers don’t differ that much from ordinary customers. They communicate politely, don’t make scenes and stick to all agreements. The only major difference is that they tend to control things a little too much — and this approach can negatively affect a team’s productivity.
Micromanagers are like overprotective parents. Normally, parents protect their children from harm while they’re growing up, watching them carefully so that they don’t stick their fingers in a socket. Once the children grow up, they relinquish control and trust them to do the right thing. Overprotective parents, however, call their grown-up son five times a day to remind him that it’s dangerous to play with electricity.
In most cases, clients micromanage when there’s not enough transparency. It’s not clear to them whether or not the whole team is occupied and all the estimates are correct. But above all, they worry about the project moving in the wrong direction.
But why do some customers feel comfortable with a team, while others suffer from a lack of transparency? Well, there may be different reasons for this: sometimes the manager doesn’t give them enough info, and sometimes their anxiety gets in the way. A client is more likely to micromanage if they:
- are investing all of their money into the project;
- don’t find the manager’s expertise credible;
- are used to working directly with developers and designers;
- have had a bad experience with outsourcing and don’t trust project managers that well.
How micromanagement harms (and helps!) a project
It’s important to understand that when clients micromanage, they don’t want to spoil the app, website, or any other product that they’ve outsourced. Quite the opposite: they believe this helps the team stay focused and disciplined.
Sometimes this works — for example, when the customer communicates with the developers and designers directly, without a manager. Or when the manager is young and inexperienced.
But when the client fights for control with a competent manager, the project might suffer. Let’s look at how micromanagement affects the team’s workflow:
Stifles the project manager. Overcontrolling clients interfere with various processes but don’t take responsibility for the results. This usually leads to chaos, with the project manager hastily fixing the negative consequences of the actions they’re not even responsible for.
Here’s an example. The client insists that all buttons in the app differ in colors, and it’s impossible to convince them otherwise. Then, a week before the release, they see that the multicolored buttons look messy — and it’s the project manager who has to fix this, not the client.
We had a wary client who distrusted the project manager so much that he started to personally organize all processes inside the team, calculate time estimates, and give edits to the developers. Basically, he excluded me from the project and took on the role of the manager. The problem was that he wasn’t as deeply immersed in the development and didn’t understand the nuances of what he was demanding. Many of his budget & time estimates were pretty unrealistic, unlike ours. Once the client understood this, he stopped trying to control everything to such an extent.
Blows the budget and deadlines out of proportion. When the client tries to take the manager’s place, they can make many mistakes — simply because there’s a lot of nuances they don’t know. The work will slow down, and all the unplanned tasks will lead to unplanned expenditures.
There was a situation when our client first approved the project’s logic but then asked to change it after some time. To him, it seemed as simple as to tweak a couple of lines of code, and he insisted that the team do this ASAP. However, it actually meant rethinking half of the interface. Sure, we could do this, but it would be rather costly for the client. To get this idea across, I drew up a table with all the necessary changes and specified their costs. Once the client saw that table, he dropped the idea.
Demoralizes the team. Overcontrolling clients don’t like to discuss edits with the manager. They think that it’s better to instruct developers and designers directly, without any middlemen. Is it faster? Certainly. More effective? Definitely not.
If the client does bypass the manager, they give the team a chaotic array of conflicting tasks instead of a clear to-do list. This upsets both the developers and designers, resulting in burnout. Burnt-out team members become less productive, and the manager has to appoint new employees who are totally new to the project.
One of the clients I’ve worked with always reached out directly to the developers — he thought that I lacked the necessary expertise. When I’d say that a task would take four days, he responded with “What’s there to do? It takes two days max.” The developers would then begin to hurry, and this greatly affected their work. Even if they managed to complete a task within two days, they’d quickly get tired and burnt out, and I would have to constantly find new members for the team. When the situation grew dire, I arranged a one-on-one talk with the client and explained that he “chokes” the team, the developers come and go, and finding new team members is a long and expensive process. In the end, we managed to arrive at a compromise.
How to increase transparency so that the client wouldn’t micromanage
Here at Purrweb, we’ve come up with a special algorithm that helps us establish productive relationships with customers who tend to micromanage. Here’s what we do:
- Test the ground. At the initial stages of any project, we ask the client to tell us about how they approach business collaboration and what they’re risking in case the project fails. We also ask them about their experience with outsourcing. This helps establish some agreements right off the start, as well as organize the processes in a way that leaves everyone satisfied.
- Ask how often they want to receive updates from the team. Sometimes the client asks for a level of transparency that is simply unsustainable. Having three phone conferences a day for six months, for instance, puts a massive strain on the team. If this is something that our client wants, we ask them why they want it and find a compromise that would suit all of us.
- Settle on the format of reports. These could be in the form of two phone conferences a week or daily updates in a tasktracker like Trello. At Purrweb, we use Jira to manage all the development projects. To alleviate the client’s anxiety, we can show them the most important tasks and critical bugs. With one customer, we settled on Monday. These apps are pretty similar in structure, but Monday features a simpler interface and is thus perfect for reporting.
- If an agreement doesn’t work, we change it. It may turn out that some things agreed upon at Stage 1 just don’t work as well as expected. For example, the project manager doesn’t have enough time to upload daily updates, and this results in the client sending him worried messages at 1am. Or the client finds the situation too stressful and contacts the developer directly. If something like this happens, we establish new agreements.
Summing up: what to do if your client is a micromanager
If the client finds it hard to trust you and your team, it doesn’t mean that you should pass up an interesting project. There are some ways to establish effective communication that will greatly reduce stress for both sides:
- Find out why the client tends to micromanage. This often happens because of a lack of transparency in regards to what’s going on inside the team.
- Discuss how micromanagement affects the project. Explain that this approach leads to unplanned expenditures and slows down every process.
- Offer them an alternative. You can build a system that allows the customer to easily track all the processes and receive timely updates from the team. Arrange that as long as this system works, the client doesn’t try to micromanage.
- If one of the sides breaks the agreement, sit down for a retrospective and establish new rules.