Organisational Alignment - Middle Out

We have been looking at organisational alignment patterns over the last few posts. We have covered the two common ones - bottom up and top down. Today I'll look at a far less common one - Middle Out. As the name implies, this pattern occurs when change is being pushed by the middle of the organisation - middle management.

Actually uncommon is an understatement, middle out is so rare that I have never seen it in the wild. It's still worth looking at though, as winning over middle management is key to the success of the top down and bottom up patterns we looked at previously. By looking at why middle out is so uncommon, it can help us to understand what prevents change from occurring at this level in large organisations, and to see what we can do to change that. What we are talking about here is the phenomenon of the frozen middle.

The frozen middle is a term that has been around for a few years. It refers the the tendency for organisational change to get stalled or frozen as soon as it hits the middle management layer. Top management wants a change but middle management seems to be locked into place and the change just dies. The common tendency here is to blame middle managers. We compare them to the pointy haired boss in Dilbert cartoons. We send them on change management courses. But nothing seems to work.

The real reason nothing works is that it's not their fault at all. As Deming identified back in the 50s -

"The workers are constrained by the system, and the system belongs to management".

Middle managers are constrained by the organisational structures and cultures that are really the responsibility of top management. Middle managers are not frozen because they are obstinate or backwards. Most of the middle managers I have encountered are acutely aware of the need for change. They support the change. What they can't see though, is how to implement that change within the constraints they have. They are frozen because the organisation locks them into place.

The most common constraint the organisation puts in the way are the way people are measured. Often, even though an organisation is asking for a change, the KPIs against which managers are measured (and often paid) reflect the old state rather than the desired new state. The classic example is an organisation that wants agility but measures its managers against a percentage of signed-off requirements delivered on time. What organisations are essentially asking managers to do is make a choice between implementing change and scoring well on their next assessment. It's a well known phenomenon in psychology that measuring something makes it look important, so by having the wrong measurements in place, the organisation is sending a signal (unintentionally) that the change isn't important, but the old behaviour is.

The other common one is cross-functional change. Managers generally have a very narrow area of focus - a particular team or product or process - but the sort of changes organisations are asking for require a broad, cross-functional focus. Implementing change may require a dozen or so managers (who are already busy doing their day jobs) to collaborate. Real change becomes a logistical nightmare so you get token changes in narrowly focused areas or "I can see the point but can't see how I can implement that here".

There are a bunch more impediments I could list here but the key message is this - the frozen middle is not a problem with middle management. It's a problem with the system and the system is a senior management problem. There is a lot of talk about "developing our middle managers as leaders" and suchlike to "thaw the frozen middle". None of that will work without fixing the system. The frozen middle is not a middle management problem. It's a senior management problem and needs to be solved by senior management.

Until senior management fixes the systems by aligning measurements and organisational structures to align with the desired change, middle management will remain stuck.