Mid Level Managers as Superhero
In a recent blog post on the Harvard Business Review web site Behnam Tabrizi reported on some research he had undertaken on why change and innovation (a pre-curser to change) didn’t work. The article is focused on Leadership but I found some powerful snippets about doing change.
The author has looked at a lot of companies and appears to have done a lot of data analysis. Tabrizi distils all this work into a few results, I would like to emphasise two results from his research:
- Senior executives had the most impact on the outcome of a change or innovation in a company, this confirms the top influence on change reported by Prosci from their survey.
- 68% of the researched change and innovation efforts failed, which also supports research from Ernst & Young, Prosci and others.
So the research aligns with what we have learned from others. What is really depressing is that the failure rate is so consistently high and remains high. The main outcome from the research is that:
- the second most important determinant of success is the Mid Level Manager. “In the successful initiatives, MLMs served as levers of change, influencing those above and below them in the corporate hierarchy.”
In contrast to the levers of change behaviour for Managers in successful change the author cites the following behaviours in failed change:
- more than 60% of manager’s efforts went into activities for sheer corporate survival,
- managers focused on pleasing people rather than doing their jobs,
- they procrastinated in making decisions for fear of failure,
- managers blamed others for failure and avoided taking risks.
Does any of this look familiar to you?
The author of the blog goes on to identify how leadership behaviours amongst mid-level managers can significantly improve their behaviours to support change. That looks like he found a problem to fit his solution. Whilst the leadership behaviours are important the issue is recognising the pivotal role of mid-level managers to deliver organisation change and doing the best things to support them.
Mid-level managers are not a replacement for a change team which provides the energy and focus for a successful change. However, no change team can deliver a change without the support and energy of middle managers. In times of change a middle manager has to find time from the day job to lead change in their area and ultimately to take ownership of the benefits. That is really heroic. And whilst we don’t expect middle managers to bounce out of a phone box wearing their underpants on the outside; we do expect them to step up to change with enthusiasm and commitment. It is getting that enthusiasm and commitment that leads to the leadership behaviours Tabrizi describes in his article.
Quite clearly the poor behaviours described above are part of the culture: and the source of that culture is the senior management. So once again the success in a change initiative comes down to senior managers setting up the right environment for success. And that environment is best captured by the organisation’s maturity in doing change.
Middle managers are the guardians of an organisations change maturity. Not only do change managers come from the ranks of middle managers; as explained above middle managers are a critical link in doing change. So the capability (or maturity) of middle managers in doing change sets the level of effectiveness with which an organisation can change.