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Impermeable Middle Management and Innovation

In Relentless Innovation I wrote about three categories of employees in any organization, loosely labelled as “executives”, “staff” and middle managers.  In my discussion I suggested that only middle managers fully support existing processes and procedures.  The reason they support business as usual with such tenacity is that middle managers are the railroad conductors of their profession.  They are responsible to ensure the trains run on time, that business is conducted with the most possible efficiency and effectiveness possible.  With this focus middle managers become a significant barrier to innovation.

Executives want efficiency and effectiveness, but don’t place a lot of emphasis on “how” work gets done.  In fact executives get impatient with existing processes and business as usual if it appears to slow or stymie new products or pet projects.  Conversely, most of the staff believe that business as usual is onerous and unyielding, impervious to new ideas.  Staff are just as likely to ignore business as usual and find work arounds as they are to follow it.

A good friend told me that the Germans have a word for middle managers – they call this segment of the employee population the Lehmschicht which translates roughly to a “bed of clay”. What they mean is a rigid, impervious layer that does a poor job of communicating staff ideas upward and vision and strategy from the top down.  Here’s a story about a proposed takeover of Suzuki by VW.  The article suggests the CEO of VW had a difficult time imposing his will until the Lehmschicht was “retired”.

Now, middle managers can be the impervious bed of clay, stubbornly clinging to efficiency and effectiveness, or they can become the bedrock foundation for new innovation.  The more tightly any organization clings to business as usual, the more likely it is to face obsolescence.  Shifting to a balance between innovation and business as usual won’t be easy, but is vital for success


About ovoinnovation

Jeffrey Phillips is a senior consultant with RTI Innovation Advisors and the author of Relentless Innovation, OutManeuver and Make us more Innovative.


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