Home Management What are we going to do with middle managers? Fire ‘em or rewire ‘em?

What are we going to do with middle managers? Fire ‘em or rewire ‘em?

by Guest Writter
Brad Murphy and Dr. Carol Mase, Authors, The Age of Surge: A Human-Centered Framework For Scaling Company-Wide Agility And Navigating The Digital Tsunami

Silos, bureaucracy, rigid boundaries—if you aren’t transforming your organization, you are putting your company at risk.  Challenging statement, we know. All those layers, fiefdoms, and decrees seem impossible to change, yet they impede the speed and communication organizations need in the digital age.  And, as you try to respond to escalating customer demand, doing things the way you’ve always done them is going to clog your innovative wheels.  Then, say goodbye to growth.

Overcoming these risks and saying “hello” to growth begins with rewiring the middle of your organization. The need to rethink the role of middle managers was highlighted by research that examined the link between strategy and execution.[1] Donald Sull and colleagues have spent years examining how operationalizing corporate strategy plays out. And their findings are astonishing.

Vertical alignment works perfectly—84% of managers trust their silo to help them get things done. Horizontal alignment, however, is another story. Relying on colleagues across functions and business units to deliver on promises ‘most of the time’ falls to 50% and then plummets to only nine-percent for ‘all of the time’. That’s roughly 34% difference between vertical and horizontal coordination and collaboration. Why does this matter? The increasing emphasis on digital products and services amplifies the need for horizontal alignment and prioritization of financial and resources allocation across the company.

We’re different, you say, we have the cross-functional means to manage these things—service level agreements (SLAs), centralized project management offices, and well defined demand management systems. Sull found that only 20% of managers believe these systems work ‘most of the time’. The key question corporate leaders face today is: How can we turn vertical alignment into horizontal collaboration? This is where your middle managers come into play.

Despite structural disincentives to do so (reporting structures, business/technical silos, functional boundaries), companies can use social capital and social physics to enroll and invite middle managers into an intentionally designed, high performing network. We find that when middle managers are encouraged to link up into a horizontal network and to support each other and cross-organizational ideas, products and services—ultimately, the customer—execution aligns to strategy.

Take, for example, the technology operations group inside the third-largest life and annuities company in the U.S. The 23 members of the group work within nine technical silos and support multiple businesses providing individual and group insurance needs. Each business unit has its own growth strategy and digital needs, resulting in new products and services being added to the existing portfolio the group maintains. Group members track performance of people, products/services, and teams, which produced nine sets of metrics that took hours of time to generate and then integrate into a single executive dashboard.

Our solution—one which we have found works in any size organization—was to bring everyone together and intentionally design a horizontal network to standardize performance and share insights and learning. We accomplished the design phase during a two-day workshop and solidified the horizontal network over three months of coaching. In all cases, two key elements drive success: first, regular in-depth conversations (in-person and virtual) that allow the network to explore and develop an identity that gives meaning to its work, and second, a serious challenge that can only be overcome by the collective (not the individual).

You can unleash horizontal networks on any gnarly, complex problem that crosses boundaries in an organization.  Horizontal networks thrive on challenge, and we have used them to shift work flow, leadership behaviors, and culture. You will find that networks increase the speed of learning, the speed of collaboration, and the speed of delivery.

Your middle managers already exist, but they’re not being used. Integrated into a horizontal network they have significant impact on your business outcomes. Your bottom line sees a financial benefit, not by cutting jobs, but by creating knowledge and business value. The real story about the middle of your organization is about connecting people horizontally, exploring and revealing new ways to unlock the growth that comes from diversity, collaboration, and collective learning. Cha-ching!


About the Author

Brad Murphy and Dr. Carol Mase are the authors of THE AGE OF SURGE: A Human-Centered Framework For Scaling Company-Wide Agility And Navigating The Digital Tsunami.

Brad Murphy is a serial software entrepreneur who has pioneered digital enterprise innovations in product, service, and agile software development. Murphy is CEO of Gear Stream.

Dr. Carol Mase is an organizational designer, biologist, drug inventor, social anthropologist, and global product innovation executive. Mase is an executive coach and organizational innovator at Gear Stream.

For more information, please visit www.gearstream.com.

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