Stuck in the Middle

stuck-in-middleIf you have ever worked in, or dealt with, a large organization, you will likely have encountered ‘middle management’ behaviors that are barriers to innovation, especially innovation that requires organizational transformation. Now there is research that what you experience isn’t a figment of your imagination, it is a real phenomenon that can make innovation much more difficult than it should be.

Managers do worse at judging the value of new ideas than creators. They are also more wary of advancing creative solutions and tend to think more convergently.

One recent research article focuses on ‘creative forecasting’, the activity of judging which new ideas within an organization move forward. In the paper, the researchers look at creators, those who generate novel and useful ideas, managers those who select which ideas to put resources behind and the audience which ultimately determines which new ideas are successful.

The research results indicate that creators are better at evaluating ideas (not their own) than managers. If you are a creator, then you tend to be good at evaluating new and novel concepts. If all you do is stand in judgement of ideas created by others and are not creating ideas yourself (i.e. a manager), then your judgement of the value of a new idea is suspect.

Another research article shows that people in the middle of a status hierarchy (as opposed to the top or the bottom) are more conforming and less prone to advancing creative solutions. The risk of status loss may make those with middle status more wary of advancing creative solutions in fear that they will be evaluated negatively. Anxiety at the prospect of status loss also causes individuals with middle status to narrow their focus of attention and to think more convergently. This tendency even has a name – ‘Middle Status Conformity’.

These results are troubling to those who are trying to make large organizations more innovative. It is often middle management, the Directors and Senior Managers within an organization, who are tasked with running innovation programs and projects. They are usually not expected to be the ‘creators’ themselves, but to manage the programs and put the processes and tools in place that allow the creator’s ideas to be heard and acted on. These middle manager’s careers depend on their successes, not only the ideas that make it to market, but their ability to work within the existing organization structure and culture.

Expect your innovation managers to create new ideas and reward them for divergent thinking and not conforming to the status quo.

The middle managers, even those middle managers who have inherent creativity and an experimental mindset, often receive few incentives for exercising these attributes and some of the incentives they experience can even be negative. If moving up in the organization is one of the goals of your innovation managers, then being creative and advancing new and novel ideas can be a two edge sword.

  1. Make them creators, not just judgers. Get your managers involved in creative endeavors and give them the time and the authority to generate new ideas themselves.So can be done to overcome these issues? Well, for the people who manage your innovation efforts, there are two clear lessons.
  2. Expect (and reward) them to not conform. Value their idiosyncrasies and their iconoclasm. Require divergent thinking and promote those who exhibit these attributes.

We’ve all heard about, and perhaps experienced, the ‘frozen middle’ management layers of large organizations. This research shows that this phenomenon is not just anecdotal, but that it is a real and pernicious problem for organizations wishing to unleash their innovative potential. Being aware of this organizational and cultural tendency is the first step in doing something about it.


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