Monday Musing: The overlooked power of middle managers

Today I start what I hope to be a regular feature: Monday musings. These are informal reflections; I may babble, but I’ll always have a point.

Empowering the Michael Scotts of the world

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I’m gonna go ahead and make a bold statement: I believe that middle managers are often the most overlooked assets within an organization.

Let me explain.

As a consultant, I need to work with someone who has the decision-making power to hire me as a partner. This means that my early conversations - about the challenge the organization/school is facing, the structure of my approach to help respond to that challenge, and all the ensuing details - tend to happen with senior leaders. Don’t get me wrong; this is great! My work is about bringing a new way of solving problems into constrained organizations, and change doesn’t happen without a blessing from the top.

That said, change also means transforming the way people work; in my work, this often manifests in the form of training sessions with employees, to teach them how to think and build and work and collaborate like designers. In other words, I am hired by senior leaders, then work with mid-level employees to make change happen. So what’s the problem, you ask? The gap between the two is too great to allow for meaningful organizational change - and is often an obstacle to sustainable innovation.

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Earlier this year, I completed an eight-week design sprint alongside a client. This client is a Fortune 500 company, a stalwart of its industry and, by all accounts, pretty successful. The goal was to work with a select group of employees within one division, to empower them with design thinking and facilitate them through a process of generating solutions to an existing business challenge. Great! Fun! Change-making work! It really was.

But we were missing something …

The client team came up with a set of awesome ideas - feasible, viable, and desirable. The Senior Leadership Team listened to the teams pitch them, signed off on moving them forward, and had glowing reviews of the work. Then … nothing. The concepts just sort of sat there.

I couldn’t believe it. On that team was one of the most self-motivated people I’d ever worked with. They had sign-off from the top. What was the problem?

The biggest obstacle to the concepts moving forward turned out to be the team’s middle managers. This client team had been hand-picked by senior management for their innovative ways of working and their desire to create new solutions for the business. But after the design sprint ended, progress was felled by the simple fact that they had day jobs and a different set of leaders deciding how they were supposed to spend their time.

The team’s managers weren’t involved in the design sprint; the onus was on the client team to do the work while the manager made sure the business didn’t suffer. So, the managers did not participate int he process, meaning they:

  • Didn’t share the common language of design thinking we developed as a team

  • Didn’t understand the business value of design thinking as a way to solve problems

  • Didn’t understand the process (in particular, how it can be infused in day-to-day work and not necessarily need always be an 8 week sprint)

As a result, they had zero incentive to create the space, time, and permission for the team to continue their work. These managers were being evaluated by the same set of KPIs as before; they merely saw the design sprint as a discrete project that should not take any further time from their teams. They were the critical component of a successful sprint. We missed them.

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Too often, I see teams doing innovation - and innovative - work with the blessing of their senior leaders, but without the engagement of their direct managers. This sets them up for failure. Change - whether a new way of working, new ideas, or new collaborations - must be approached holistically, particularly if it’s going to be sustainable. When I work with my clients, I’m now sure to ask about the approval/decision-making structure so I can help design a program that fits within the organization’s environment. I also like to know who the informal leaders are: in other words, who carries social capital in the organization, regardless of title, who we should involve?

I’ve also designed different structures for post-training and post-sprint work, to ensure that client teams can carry on the work within the constraints of their organizations, well after I’m gone. (See more of my thoughts on post-project work here). After all, I believe that a great consultant brings so much value and change to an organization that she eventually works herself out of a job.

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So, the musing today has a moral: don’t overlook the middle managers who may not be part of the project team, but are critical to organizational innovation. They can and should be your biggest stakeholder and advocate for change.

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