It is often claimed that the middle manager seems to the ones holding back innovation. I tend to subscribe to this myself, although I feel the circumstances and ‘blame’ might lie elsewhere, more than likely further up the organization. Irrespective of where the culpability lies we do need to change this perception through altering the current dynamics.
The general argument goes that the middle manager is so pressured to focus on the delivery of short-term results that all their efforts are centred far more on delivering ‘just’ an effective organization, that drives out any excess or leeway, reduces variation, constantly dampening down potential risk and uncertainty that is in direct conflict with what innovation required.
By the middle managers obsession with constantly chasing efficiencies alone, there is little ‘slack’ for innovation and new learning. Their measurement is often based on this efficiency and effectiveness emphasis and not on generating innovation.
It does seem resources are often in conflict when it comes to innovation.
They are being stretched far more, pushed hard on being involved in multiple tasks and with the prevailing mentality to keep their focus on generating the immediate short-term results. This not only squashes out opportunity to explore, it is actually squeezing the middle managers ability to build a more flexible, responsive organization. Innovation is in direct ‘tension’ with much that is being undertaken at middle management level.
This does result in working towards a well-tuned and efficient operating system but it seems one that is not capable to allow innovation to move from a collection of ad hoc activities into one that builds progressively that more sustaining innovation structure, establishing a deepening set of capabilities that this requires.
Although organizations claim to be innovative often the very people that we are expecting to manage the ‘dynamics of innovation’ within organizations, the Middle Managers, are simply seeking the very opposite, doing everything possible to keep the environment as stable and consistent as it can be.
Are middle managers restricting the ‘vital essences’ that innovation needs – a fluid, agile, open, diverse and flexible environment and putting consistent constraints and barriers in the way in their pursuit of efficiency and predictable effectiveness.
So can this change?
How can we shift the needle and tilt it more towards innovation for it to become more ‘core’ to performance without inflicting a more radical, total overhaul, one that is unlikely to happen in most existing organizations unless they are facing significant crisis, and then it is far too late.
What if we turned things on their head- a big idea perhaps?
Let’s turn the existing core competencies needed for middle managers on their head and offer a new mix of primary, critical and core capabilities that are the measuring point for the MM’s new core competency set that provides for a clearer innovation focus as essential to master.
1. Core competences need to be changed – we should flip the requirements
We all recognize that the dedicated middle manager holds the organization together. They are often the glue that connects the organization with the leadership and enable the ‘forces’ to flow, yet do they allow this for innovation? In traditional Chinese culture qì (also chi or ch’i) is an active principle forming part of any living thing. Qi is frequently translated as “life energy”, “life force”, or the energy flow “and innovation is the same vital need within organizations. Middle managers need to unleash their inner forces.
Let’s flip the thinking
Flipping the thinking on capabilities around for the Middle Manager
Primary becomes the base not the pinnacle. What they do in efficiency and effectiveness remains as their primary capability – you don’t alter this, it is too engrained. This can only change over time and through their inner awareness and recognition that innovation needs to be embedded, alongside the existing ‘fixation’ on efficiency and effectiveness. Don’t try to radically change, make progressive step changes. Efficiency and effectiveness clearly remains the inventory repertoire of solid capabilities so as you set about to build a new platform, based on innovation, it layers and interlocks
You target selected critical capabilities to learn and explore. You provide the MM clarity of the new and emerging critical capabilities they need to build up. These are the capabilities that will provide the greatest impact for competitive advantage, not just internal but external in all its orientation and building.
At the top of the pyramid is the core capabilities they need to have. This cluster of capabilities is centred on the critical capabilities to make innovation main stream, to be a daily part of their thinking, their make-up, their intent to ensure happens. These differ according to the role, area of focus and contribution.
The emerging new value in the middle becomes our connector for innovation
Middle managers tasks should increasingly become far more about performing the role of connectors and facilitators, not the guardians and gatekeepers for the decision makers. The middle manager carries through connection and identification. Making sure everyone has a ‘sight-line’ and identification into their contribution for any organizational innovation framework so they stay well-connected and engaged.
Their work should include the encouragement that everyone is engaged in innovation work, for each person to constantly go back and check against this integrated innovation framework to work out their place to relate to this and become aligned.
Communication and relationships becomes the key. We need to find that new high ground for middle managers to be seen as the real connectors and enablers and not the current view as more often than not, the blockers on innovation.
Organizations need to unleash innovation for their growth. The key to this ‘unlocking’ comes from solving the middle within the organization. We need to measure the role middle manages play with a specific innovation perspective.
image credit: warwaslibrary.com
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Paul Hobcraft runs Agility Innovation, an advisory business that stimulates sound innovation practice, researches topics that relate to innovation for the future, as well as aligning innovation to organizations core capabilities.