Getting top-management support and engagement is a critical success factor for large collaborative innovation initiatives. It adds credibility to the program, as employees see that innovation has a high priority and that there is a budget for implementing ideas. However, between top management and the employee base are several other layers of a company that play a significant role in innovation programs: the middle management.
What characterizes middle managers?
According to definition, “middle management is the intermediate management of a hierarchical organization, being subordinate to the senior management but above the lowest levels of operational staff.”
Their duties include carrying out strategic directives from upper-level management at the operational level by delegating work to subordinate managers and employees. For that they have to handle financial and human resources and align these with targets and deadlines. Eventually, they have to report back to upper-management on their group’s performance.
More and more, middle managers are also required to work across departments and facilitate collaboration and knowledge transfer. Typically, middle managers strive to move up the ladder and take more responsibility. With companies being leaner than ever today, this becomes increasingly tough.
Why would middle managers block innovation?
One may think that all you need to get a collaborative innovation program working is sponsorship by the top of the company and a motivated, engaged crowd at the bottom. However, the management layer in the middle also plays a significant role.
In a series of interviews that we carried out last year among 30 HYPE customers we learned that getting middle manager’s support is crucial for a successful innovation initiative. However, the effort that it takes is often underestimated.
Many of our clients found that getting senior management support for corporate innovation initiatives is often easier than getting middle management buy-in across the company. Why is that? The CEO may have innovation and collaboration as a top strategic goal. He has a long-term perspective and is aware of the growth gap. But middle management may see the world differently. For them, the goal is hitting the targets given by upper-management and keeping resources focused on the job at hand. If there are challenges arising, they typically think of themselves to be the ones to come up with the right solutions and ideas, not the players in the field.
What is middle management’s role in innovation programs?
There are two phases of an organization’s innovation process where middle management has significant influence: One is in driving employee participation in collaborative innovation and the second is in the back-end process when it comes to decision making. Let’s have a closer look at these two:
It may be expected, that innovation initiatives that are officially supported and sponsored by the CEO make employees feel they are allowed to participate. However,the permission to participate in reality does not sit with the CEO, but instead with middle management, who are in control of resources. On the one hand, they are in charge of distributing work among employees and keeping an eye on execution. On the other hand, they are also motivating their teams and communicate corporate directives and goals. Therefore, middle managers should also motivate their team to participate in innovation and give them the OK to do so in their regular work time. If they don’t do that or, even worse, discourage and forbid employees to participate, it becomes unlikely to see any engagement coming from the part of the organization they oversee.
Another crucial position that often sits with the middle management is that of a gatekeeper for radical innovations, which is among others described by Clayton Christensen in his classic “The Innovator’s Dilemma”: While senior managers often believe they are making the resource allocation decisions, many decision have been made long before they get involved. Middle managers are the ones that sift out those innovation projects that will get resources for preparing concept studies, to develop prototypes and eventually will be presented to top management. Hence, they have the power to decide which innovation projects will be proposed to senior management and which won’t. Career opportunities, risk aversity and threats to their own position may play a significant role in their decision making here.
First and most important: middle management must be informed and involved early on. They should learn about a new collaborative innovation program before the employee base does. The message must be passed on step by step from top to bottom of the company, explaining to each management level the purpose and goal of the program, its strategic significance, the process, their role, and finally how they can benefit.
So how can middle management actually benefit? As mentioned above, middle managers are usually driven by targets coming from the top. Campaign-based innovation programs can help them to fulfil these. By running tactical campaigns which focus on short-term success and usually aim at collecting ideas to improve cost and process efficiency, increasing profit margins or finding solutions to specific problems. For new campaign-based innovation programs, it is normally recommended to start off with such small, tactical campaigns in a single part of the company. Convince a middle manager to run a first campaign that likely creates ideas that can be implemented quickly with limited resources. This will be your proof of concept and helps to demonstrate that innovation is a service they can make use of. It shows the value of the approach and helps to convince other middle managers to sponsor campaigns that are aligned to their individual business challenges.
Sponsoring campaigns can improve middle managers reputation in two ways: first, subordinate employees feel more included and valued by their superiors, and second, success stories coming from those campaigns are communicated across the company and are likely to catch upper management’s attention.
As we learnt, giving employees the time and space, as well as to encourage them to innovate is something that needs to be done by their direct superiors. This also goes for top-management: besides motivating middle management, they must be given the necessary space in their yearly objectives for innovation. Middle management should have an innovation target, next to their standard “going-concern” yearly targets. Innovation software can help to keep track of innovation activities on different organizational levels in order to detect where participation and innovation is potentially blocked.
Middle managers need a lot of attention when planning and executing an innovation program. They have the power to help them succeed, as well as to stifle them, as this story exemplifies. Their power comes from their position in the middle: They are well connected to the top as well as to the bottom of an organization and act as hubs and gatekeepers to the internal information flow.
Just like every human, getting middle managers to show certain behaviours (i.e. support the innovation program) is much more likely when they are intrinsically motivated. This is not done through corporate policies and directives, but by showing them the value of collaborative innovation for the company, their department and their personal career.