Six ways to stop middle management blocking innovation

MT EXPERT: Unless you reward your middle managers for innovating, your company's big ideas are going nowhere, says Harvey Wade.

by Harvey Wade
Last Updated: 15 Jan 2015

Innovation initiatives have a habit of causing excitement and raising expectations. Senior management anticipate the brand new shiny ideas and front-line employees can’t wait to be rid of their daily frustrations. So what could go wrong?
Amid all the enthusiasm, there’s a group that is usually neglected in the engagement strategy – the middle managers. Often it’s assumed that these managers will support all the company initiatives. It’s their role to toe the line and make sure others do. They’ll buy in surely?
Actually, they don’t.
The role of a middle manager is to maintain the status quo and ensure that set targets are met and the organisational cogs keep turning as expected. They are not needed to pursue flights of fancy - a.k.a. ideas. They are employed to keep order and manage resources.
And then they and their team are asked to innovate. What’s in it for the manager? If they are measured on meeting their current objectives, innovation will be seen as a distraction to the ‘real work’, with no guaranteed rewards at the end.
So instead of ideas flowing freely through the organisation and being implemented in the blink of an eye, they get stuck. Really stuck.
Middle managers become the road blocks. They are not doing it intentionally, but unconsciously (mostly) they get their team to focus on the current deliverables, prioritising the now, because that’s what they get ‘kicked on’ if it doesn’t get done. As a result, their team begins to learn that although innovation is a goal of the organisation, it’s either for another team or is done in their own time.

This obviously causes innovation to stall. So how can it be overcome? Here are some practical ways that can help middle managers support innovation.

1. Review the roadblocks

Think about how your business model and management structure may be inhibiting innovation. Do you favour those less imaginative staff, who keep the ball rolling day-to-day, over the more unreliable but incredibly creative individuals? Sitting down directly with your middle managers to ask them what they’re struggling with and discussing how to overcome any road blocks can also be invaluable.

2. Rate your rewards

Check how you measure manager performance. Do managers get rewarded for innovation? Can they personally gain from it? Although not all managers need this to be in place, it will help the ‘crustier’ ones to change - they will now have an answer when they ask ‘what’s in it for me?’

3. Celebrate it publicly

Celebrate managers who have made innovation happen in their teams. Create positive envy, so other managers want the limelight. Symbolism and overt recognition can definitely work to your advantage here.

4. Promote innovators

Promote managers who foster innovation. Demonstrate how having an innovative attitude is crucial to advancing in your organisation. Ensure that every development course puts innovation into the agenda. Eventually, the message will get through.

5. Successful team = successful manager

Most managers are a success because they have a successful team. The team maketh the manager, if you will. Help the manager to realise that if they harness their team’s creativity and apply it to their own problems, their team will be very high-performing and they will look very good.

6. Remove the barriers

Make it easier for a manager to support innovation. If your company uses time codes, create an line entry for innovation. If your managers need help, give them the training and the confidence to be innovative. Make the messages clear from the top – if you want innovation, you need to create space to do things differently.

You could even provide ‘Get out of jail free’ cards, like the CEO of the Extended Stay America hotel chain did to get his employees to take risks without the fear of being fired. Removing barriers removes the excuses.

Harvey Wade is innovation strategy director at project management software company Mindjet.

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