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  • Writer's picturePaulo Mateus

Do Not Micromanage me!!

A true story about how micromanagement in Skylab space mission went wrong!

As most organizations should be aware, micromanaging is a bad practice for any leader and usually do not provide the best outcomes.

Everything started in the Skylab 4 space mission, back in 1973: that had a bad start and got behind schedule. Time was of the essence as this was the fourth and last mission before the space station was decommissioned, and Skylab 3 had outperformed, being unusually efficient and setting the expectations high.

NASA control decided to cope with the problem by…micromanagement. So, the team of 3 experienced and trained astronauts (holding several M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Aeronautics and mechanic Engineering, as well as in Mathematics) had their VERY detailed to-do list and schedule for every task. Every morning they started receiving in their teleprinter the detailed instructions – one day they received an 18 meters long to-do list for the day(!). Things were not easy managing their 16-hour shift, scheduled down to the minute, with no room to use their own judgment. To make things better (or worse), NASA also decided to have daily half an hour planning meetings [does this sound familiar?], which reduced, even more, their available time to perform the tasks.

Astronauts got rebellious, grew beards, and missed one radio briefing, and maintaining radio silence for a full orbit (~90 minutes), making NSA think they were on strike. This all escalate until they finally had a serious meeting with ground control, redefining rules and getting back autonomy and empowerment to manage their own schedule and planning.

In the end, Skylab 4 mission was one of the most successful – they were in space for a new record of 84 days and their productivity outperformed all previous missions. This finally become a case study of bad management by Harvard Business School.

Lessons to be taken:

Lesson #1: Micromanagement does not work – especially if you are dealing with a proficient and motivated team.

Lesson #2: During the confinement period, some companies tried to enforce micromanagement and surveillance. Micromanagement and a culture of surveillance results in low morale, cheating, misleading metrics and poor performance. You should focus instead on measuring the outcome and deliverables and give liberty to your team to figure out which is the best way to do it.

Lesson #3: Time and effort of a Leader come at a cost. Think if the best way to use your time and energy is really by micromanaging your team. Figure out how scalable and productive that can be.

There are many smart ways to improve your team productivity and impact your results, but micromanagement is certainly not one of them.

If you are curious to see how it feels, just listen to the Astronaut's own words in this BBC Witness History Podcast.

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