Mis-using Management by Exception

Mike Chitty’s post on “Whack a Mole Management” (here) prompted me to think about how I position and coach on management by exception.

Whack-a-mole is an arcade game in which you try to hit ‘moles’ that pop up randomly on a board using a rubber mallet….  Whack-a-mole management is based on the same principles.  The challenges are the ‘moles’. As each challenge presents itself to managers, they hit it hard and fast with the hammer of position and conventional wisdom.  It’s exhausting, but fun.

Management by exception can quickly turn into “whack-a-mole” management.  Many inexperienced managers fall into the trap of thinking that MBE means only working issues, when it is really a principle for empowering line managers.  This article is a few years old, but I like the way it summarizes the approach (here), especially these five tips for avoiding the pitfalls of MBE:

  1. Combine MBE with MBWA (management by walking around).
  2. Clarify the level of authority for each newly delegated responsibility. Level A might be, “Do it. You don’t have to tell anyone.’ Level B, “Do it. Then let me know about it.’ Level C, “Do it only after checking with me.’
  3. Make sure lower-level managers are comfortable with their expanded authority. Review policies, practices, and procedures.
  4. Enlarge the definition of “exceptions’ to include favorable variances that should be reported to higher management.
  5. Use coaching and guidelines to encourage those who have received new authority. Higher management should show patience when they goof and express appreciation for their successes.

5 Responses

  1. I think much of my time is spent helping people recognise how their addiction to mole whacking/management by exception limits the performance of the team by:
    1 ensuring that all the good stuff is neither recognised nor acknowledged
    2 disempowers team members as managers ride to the rescue to sort out problems
    3 associates management with problems and negativity – making ‘management’ a less than attractive proposition.
    Of course, moles have to be whacked, but there are always choices about has to do the whacking!
    Thanks for reading my post!

  2. Hi Mike,
    Thanks for the comment…obviously I agree with those cautions. Leadership topics are underappreciated by project managers, so I’m placing increasing emphasis on themes like character, judgment, and creativity. FYI, I’ve added the Progressive Manager’s Network blog to my blogroll.

    Best, Paul

  3. Hi Paul, Mike,

    Coincidentally, I too had this running through my mind. When I googled and wordpress tag surfed, both of your posts came up. Mike yours come up first and got to Paul’s post from there.

    Great stuff and appreciate the sharing as well. I’ve mentioned you both in my blog about this. Happy to see similarly minded folks doing, thinking, preaching the same sensible messages!


    ps-I’ve added both your sites to my blogroll.

  4. […] I need to give credit to being inspired by Paul Ritchie and his Crossderry Blog where he clarifies the use of MBE based on Mike Chitty’s blog posting Whack-a-Mole Management (WaMM[tm]) style. This fabulously […]

  5. Hi Lui,
    Thanks for the comment…as you say, it is just comment sense.


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