March 29, 2016

Middle management – holding back innovation

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In my travels as a consultant and adviser, I have come to find that middle management is holding back innovation. Allow me to explain this dramatic assumption. I have found that there are three types of employee – the leader, the worker and the middle-manager.

The leaders

In industry, government and business, there are leaders and innovators; they are people of inspiration who want to make a difference and want to be on the leading edge. These leaders are driving forward to improve the services or profitability of their business, to change and pivot when they can. The CEO of a business is unlikely to be the sort of person who just wants to keep the lights on…

The workers

Then there are the workers. The people who don’t ask why. The sort of people who keep the business turning because they arrive every day, clock in, do their allocated work responsibilities and look forward to their few weeks of leave. They are resistant to change, follow the rules and don’t stir things up. The hard working people who have been told for years that to get ahead they have to work long hours and work hard – and then maybe, just maybe, if they have worked in their department the longest, when a promotion comes around then it will be their turn.

The middle-managers

Then it’s the problem people. Often made up of workers who have been promoted for no other reason that their immediate manager was promoted, or retired. This person has worked for years in the same job, but importantly they have worked under a manager who themselves had the same career path – “promotion through perseverance”. The new middle-manager is given little to no training – after all, they have done the job for years. They are given a bigger salary and more entitlements – but not quite as much as they thought they were going to get…

Then the rot sets in.

The new middle manager may have suffered under a lazy predecessor, maybe even someone who took all the credit or treated their staff with little to no respect. So, the new middle-manager is going to do the same – the only ‘management training’ that they got was from observing their predecessor. Their predecessor who themselves learnt from a 60’s era manager…

If a new and energised worker dares come to the new middle-manager with a new innovation, perhaps some automation or optimisation of process, what is the manager going to do? Probably state “that’s not the way we do things around here“, because that manager only got to their position through years of ‘service’. The middle-manager won’t raise it with their senior manager, perhaps because their relationship is not strong enough – or perhaps because they have seen over the years that changes are quashed and rejected, so why try? Perhaps when new software was implemented, there was a requirement for extensive training and a long roll-out, extended release cycles for changes – all with associated high costs.

So the middle managers are the Great Filter that holds back innovation, prevents change and improvement, and slows down improvement. They have been indoctrinated that promotion and recognition are only granted for years of service, that change is to be prevented due to it’s impact, even that IT are the cause of impacts and delays to business productivity and availability.


I really hope that you have some strong disagreements with this post – if so, then you are a lucky one, in a modern business. If this story resonates with you, and you know some people who are like the middle-managers that I describe, then you have some problems to deal with. But, as I always say, half the battle is knowing where the problems are – once you are aware of the problem, then you can work on fixing it (or battling against it).

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Category : Opinion

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