It's Time To End the Middle Manager Witch Hunt

There's a commonly held notion among frustrated executives that "middle managers stifle innovation." After all, it's the obvious conclusion to draw when confronted with the following evidence:
  • The company has stated that "innovation is the priority," and has even featured it in strategic communications
  • The executives have all made innovation a big part of their departmental strategies, but...
  • The pace or quality of innovation isn't matching executive team expectations
  • Key innovation projects are delayed or stalled despite having nimble, dedicated teams trying to push them through
  • And employee survey data shows conclusively that "managers do not support innovation."
Given that overwhelming evidence it's easy for executive teams who have spoken tirelessly about the need to innovate to point the finger at the middle management layer: "If we have made it a priority, and if the front line employees are struggling, then it MUST be the middle managers who are to blame."

I, too, have made this (lazy) error in judgment. Frustrated by the lack of progress of the innovation strategy I was leading, I fully supported the development of a "middle manager task force" to solve the problem. You can probably guess that this committee logically concluded that the best way to deal with the situation was to offer better innovation programs to our middle manager layer.

Months after forming the task force, however, the problem persisted. Sure, we had a couple of small wins such as new mentoring programs and training programs. But, the same conditions bulleted above remained.

We next conducted rounds of more extensive interviews of employees. After seeing the same pattern of survey data we'd seen previously, we decided to change the line of questioning. We asked these two questions:
  1. Do our company managers support innovation?
  2. Does your direct manager support innovation?
The result was surprising. While most respondents stated that our company managers did not support innovation, the vast majority also defended their own managers! The problem had taken an interesting turn: If nearly every individual felt that their own manager supported innovation, then what was causing the widespread perception that managers, in general, did not support innovation? The problem was much more systemic than we were giving it credit for (as is nearly always the case).

Imagine you are part of a team which performs a critical operational function for the company. Next, imagine that your team leader (manager) approaches the team and says: "We need to be more innovative in the way we approach our work. In fact, we are going to spend 2 days in an offsite innovation session AND you now have 10% of your time free to spend on innovation. This, of course, will cause you to have to reprioritize some of your work. If anyone gives you trouble, tell them you have the COO's support, and you can send them to come talk to me."

Now, that's a great manager! Everything is there: championing, support, reprioritization, orientation. But, it's always easy to notice what's in front of you; it takes a trained eye to see what's missing... 

Imagine now a world in which EVERY team in the company has that same conversation, at the same time. Quite simply, we've just taken 10% of everyone's time away from the core business and not discussed at all how one team's innovation efforts should be supported by any other team. 

The witch hunt for the middle manager who is stifling innovation must stop. There are no managers in your company who don't want to be innovative. There are very few managers who are incapable of changing to be more innovative. These are, in many cases, the very employees the company sees high enough potential in to promote them into manager positions!

The true culprits here are the executive team members who state: "Innovation is the priority." This ambiguous declaration of innovation as a priority does nothing to answer for the organization WHICH innovations are priorities and WHAT gets de-prioritized. 

Let's instead hunt down the executives who neither clarify their expectations nor make difficult trade-off decisions. It's easy to state "Innovation is our #1 priority!" without doing the necessary harder, foundational work. It's maybe even reasonable for them to expect that traditional business processes designed to prioritize work will be effective on innovation initiatives. However, strategy is as much a business of stating what we should stop doing as it is stating what else we should be doing. A much clearer declaration of innovation as a priority would be: "We have three innovation priorities and here is how we are going to execute on them..."

Don't be quick to assume that there is a certain type of employee, such as middle managers, resisting innovation. Lack of clarity looks like resistance. And lack of clarity is far more common.

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