16 February 2004

Micromanagement by Microbrains

Disney is a mess. As the Perfesser understates

First, Disney was a much smaller company when Walt ran it. Micromanagement rarely is a successful business model in any firm, but it has more of a fighting chance when the business is small enough for top management to dust the trees without losing sight of the forest. Second, Eisner isn't anywhere near as skilled at micromanagement as was Walt. In fact, Eisner may be one of the most overrated executives in recent history.… Eisner may yet prevail, but if he does it will once again be Disney shareholders who pay the price.

"Micromanagement as Business Model: Walt v. Eisner" (16 Feb 2004) (long block quotation removed).

It's not just that Disney was smaller; it's that Disney was essentially in only two industries during Walt's day: studio-produced audiovisual content provider and theme-park operator. Neither was a regulated field. Now Disney is in several regulated fields, in addition to that preexisting core. Live sport programming (ESPN, part of Capital Cities/ABC)—in fact, live anything programming—has some minor regulatory issues of its own, but now Disney must also cope with broadcast regulation (radio and TV), cable television franchising issues, substantially expanded international markets with all of the import/export regulations that implies… the list goes on. Micromanagement is bad enough in a concentrated organization; it's far, far worse when business/operational lines diverge. I've seen this in action in the military too damned many times to believe that micromanagement gets worse with diversity only in manufacturing environments (the most-common excuse I've heard for micromanagement in the modern economy).

That's leaving aside Eisner's, umm, personality. (Q: What do lawyers use for birth control? A: Their personalities.) I cannot think of a worse personality for someone who is supposed to be leading creative people. As badly as most of us respond to micromanagement, it's worse for artists and writers, who put substantially more of themselves into their work than most of us do (or, in a broader sense, perhaps they should…). Second-guessing of creative work isn't just criticism; it is distrust for the skills of the employee in a very personal and obvious sense. And, of course, management seldom will accept that it is to blame for the problem of not getting what it wanted. If it had clearly communicated expectations before the project began, the end product would be at least closer to its initial vision. On the other hand, as crappy as Disney's product has been for the last three decades, that may not be a good thing!

It's not just the stockholders who are losing. It's everyone in the entertainment industry, because Disney is big enough that its problems impact everyone. That's a lot of people who don't even have the voice that stockholders have.