The importance of the middle management layer for innovation

I love reading material and listening to podcasts about innovation and organisational change. One thing that strikes me is that a lot of the material focuses on the role of the leadership at the top of the organisation. This is at odds with my daily experience of working in small and medium-sized organisations.

In most of the places where I work, the challenge is often that there is a thin or non-existing layer of lieutenants that can coordinate and implement the ideas originating from higher up. Over many years of working in the manufacturing sector in South Africa I have often been struck by how “smart” top management can be, but then how wide the gap is between top management and the workers facing clients or working on the factory floor.

Recently, while reading the November-December 2017 issue of the Harvard Business Review, I found this quote from a March-April 1972 HBR article. It is from an article by Hugo Uyterhoeven.

This quote is exactly why I think we don’t always have to start with innovation right at the top, although top leadership that supports broad innovation certainly helps. Sometimes a motivated middle manager could be a great starting point for an improving innovation. Taking ideas from the top or using feedback from below or outside of the organisation, could be as good a starting point as the vision of a great senior leader.

The middle management level is also where coordinators of innovation or change can benefit from instruments developed in the field of complexity thinking or naturalistic decision making, like the instruments developed by Dave Snowden or Gary Klein or many others. Decisions at this level are often made with limited resources, incomplete information, competing objectives, tight time lines as well as shifting patterns. As the quote from Uyterhoeven suggests, these decisions often have both strategic and operational value. From an innovation perspective it means that the focus should not only be on developing good products or improving services, but also on innovation regarding how decisions are made, conversations are held, opinions of team members are elicited and considered, and how teams within organisations reach out to other silos or even organisations. Moreover, knowledge is created and recognised for its practical value by middle managers.

I believe that every middle manager can play a critical role in enabling an enabling an innovative culture.

One last thought related to this topic: while many companies have several reliable middle managers, they often don’t have succession plans in place for this level. There isn’t a pipeline of talent being refined in the organisation. Losing a great middle manager can have a great impact in small and medium-sized organisations. I have seen many small companies stumble because they don’t pay attention to the depth of their middle management

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