“Most things break in the middle!”
To simplify what is in question, let’s first understand it right -
I am using the term ‘middle management’ to describe the crossing point between the frontline employees and leadership; the members of the workforce who have authority to make decisions to a certain extent, whilst still having legitimate insight from the employees.
Their job is to make sure that the right things happen in the organization. Middle management often works as an innovational bottleneck, controlling which ideas get passed along in each direction. Let’s take a look at some of the challenges middle-management has to face, ending with some tips on how one might resolve them.
Does Middle Management suffocate Innovation? Employees from all levels have valuable insights and ideas on their respective fields and even on a broader company-wide scale. The problem is that these ideas get nipped in the bud too often than not since there’s no one to truly heed to them. Managers are crucial to this dynamic, as they need to be proficient in seeing the potential hidden in raw ideas.
Sometimes it is simply not the right time to go forward with an idea if, for example, the organization as a whole is focusing on a different strategic agenda. It is, however, important that all ideas that employees come up with are stored for later use.
After all, ideas should be treated as living and breathing beings. They can grow, take shape, and flourish with the right exposure.
Hence, managers aren’t the “bad guys that always suffocate innovation”. It is, however, necessary to filter information since although it is important for leadership to invest time in listening to ideas, it would be in no way efficient for leadership to cram in endless hours to their busy schedules to go through every single one of them. Delegating responsibility is necessary for optimizing time and maximizing productivity from upper management. Unfortunately, it renders the system vulnerable to the formation of bottlenecks. To get around the challenge, information shouldn’t flow through just a few individuals. There should be additional communication channels to help get the job done.
Delegating responsibility is necessary for optimizing effectiveness and freeing up capacity from upper management.
A common issue regarding innovation is how to properly handle the ideas coming your way. To assure that valuable ideas don’t get lost, there should be a way to manage these ideas in a way that promotes growth, both of the idea and the employee giving it. A way to systematically collect and develop ideas is to make nurturing and prioritizing them easier. This would alleviate the time pressure associated with handling the flow of ideas, thus freeing up more time to scope it out properly, as well as be able to make the right people responsible for each idea.
Even with a process to properly manage the flow of ideas, it’s up to the managers to facilitate the process that makes all this possible. For that to work properly, they need to not only motivate employees to participate and contribute, which is hard to accomplish without insight into what makes each of the employees click but also be able to give constructive feedback on the ideas. This is where having good relationships with employees comes in handy. Knowing everyone on an individual level helps make an informed decision on what the best course of action will be.
Every organization has ideational potential. The only question is, is it utilized?
There are indeed multiple reasons why middle management might be a bottleneck for innovation in your organization. It might be due to their inability to motivate the employees to contribute their insights or it might simply be because they, usually inadvertently, work as a two-sided barrier for information flow. For managers to have time to go through all ideas coming from their employees, and for the employees to hear what their ideas accomplished in the end, there must be proper communication channels. Facilitating these channels, along with upholding a positive culture, is mainly on the shoulders of middle management, as long as the correct resources are allocated from above.
Motivating employees to act on issues they face is the key to assuring that you’re getting all the ideas out there. For this to happen, it’s important to promote transparency and participation on all fronts. The more active and engaged your employees are, the more they’re willing to contribute intellectually and the more productive and committed they’ll be. Refrain from shooting down seemingly irrelevant ideas or ignoring input. Instead, ask questions that will help the employees figure out the current weaknesses of their ideas so that they can improve both the idea and their skills on critical thinking.
Motivating employees to act on issues they face is the key in assuring that you’re getting all the ideas out there.
If managers appear to be informational barriers in an organization, the focus must be on broadening the initial bottleneck, not by increasing the number of managers, but by finding ways to manage their workload.
There is one major aspect that managers, who are solely in charge of the ideational input of their employees, can improve — They need to make sure the flow of ideas and information is transparent and asynchronous so that it isn’t dependent entirely on their input.
The goal: The goal is to be able to gather, categorize, develop and then utilize or represent forward ideas coming from your employees.
Also, the method should be easy, effortless, and self-sustaining, since nobody has the time to constantly manage it.
Now, how can middle-management improve their situation?
Make sure that an effective pipeline is in place to ensure that the right ideas really get implemented. New and existing processes should naturally complement each other.
To find the best flow of ideas in an organization, we should define a pipeline — a process I’ve covered in a previous article: https://www.saugaatallabadi.com/defining-a-pipeline-for-bringing-ideas-to-life-at-scale/
Thanks to the good relationships you have with your employees, you should know which ropes to pull in order to get people on board and get everyone to use the pipeline properly. As an incentive, you promise recognition and a chance to be responsible for the implementation of your own idea, should the leadership approve it.
Refrain from being a bottleneck, but rather aim for being a facilitator. Make it easy to submit ideas to make sure no idea is left unheard. In the end, it is in the hands of the manager to make sure that their employees have a way to express themselves. Don’t overwork yourself, but rather find a smarter way to deal with the issues at hand.
Ask yourself: Are you a bottleneck or a turbocharger for your team?
Originally published at https://www.saugaatallabadi.com on January 25, 2022.