Leading from the Middle

“The Key role of middle management is reinvention.” Tom DeMarco

Often I hear of Agile Adoption best occurring top down. Salesforce.com did that, from zero to Agile overnight. Other times I hear about bottom up Agile , or Agile in “Stealth Mode”. for a development team is tired of death-marches, a bottom up agile transition can be effective and motivating. This was how most Agile Adoption occurred 5 years ago when I was learning Agile.

And I rarely hear about Agile Adoption from the middle. Yet this is where, from my experience, change typically comes from. This is due to the fact that your middle management is typically where you have slack in a traditional organization. Slack is where you get your adaptability, because it is there that you have the bandwidth to try new things and aren’t under the optimization and efficiency pressure. If an organism or organisation is optimized, then it will be unable to change. Like the Cheetah who is far too specialized to adapt to new environments or prey, it will die off. Humans, however, can adapt to many environments because they are not optimized at any one thing, (except arguable solving problems and using tools).

Middle management has a role even in top-down and bottom up adoption. While they are typically directing operations and ongoing activities, they are the ones who are in charge of implementing change. As the Harvard Business Review states “First, virtually all major strategic initiatives have to be carried out by the middle managers.” In a top-down Agile adoption, while upper management might fund an adoption or read the “The Agile CIO” whitepaper they will need to ask someone to “go do it”.

This is hard work, in my opinion, especially in a situation where you are learning how to become a servant leader and drive change in the organization. This is why I think Scrum prepares teams particularly well for the role of change agent, as a Scrum Master is in charge of serving and protecting the team, which after the team gets its house in order moves to getting the organization’s house in order to support the team.

In the case when Agile is done in stealth mode, the team is doing the hard work of change. However, you need a line manager who interfaces with the other parts of the org, protecting the team while Agile is in its infancy, and heralding success when it has proven its value. This is where a good middle manager will be able to network with other middle managers, directors etc and socialize and herald change through the organization. Hallway conversations can reduce fear about the new “threat” and familiar faces can introduce it as a new option worth exploring. Again, a key element of this is adopting the courage to try new things and introduce change, without fear.

When I was first learning about Agile, I had a terrific manager (Philip Ljubicich) who empowered me to try new things and managed by exception. His motto was “If you’re not making mistakes you’re not trying hard enough.” A Microsoft vet from the very early days, he understood the concept that the minute you mange by methods, you’ve created a system that can’t cure itself. Microsoft, despite all its faults, has created a culture that believes it is anathema to tell your development teams how to work. It has kept their organization adaptable to many changes in the tech world for the last 30 years.

When I discovered this Agile thing, he encouraged me to try it out and see what worked. We tried it, it worked, adapted it and achieved great results. My point here is that had I not been there, had the capacity to learn and the support to try new things, we may have never tried this out. Only because I had a great manager, and because I had the slack to be able to adapt did we change course. If you’re organization doesn’ have managers like Phil, then your job is harder, which is why pilot projects where you demonstrate that Agile is safe and “we’re not switching to anything” until they prove their worth are a good idea. It’s easier to support what I know has worked in our organizaiton than a new untested theory.

In the nineties there was the empowerment craze of flattening org structures, of leaders with inspired vision and teams who shared that vision. People were doing trust-falls and climbing walls and holding hands and singing kumabya.  Middle management was seen as waste. Yet in this craze to flatten org structures organizations they flattened their capacity to change.

Toyota, which has shown itself to be remarkably resilient, past four recessions and the oil crisis, has a surprisingly deep org chart, with many managers for each of its employees. These line managers, however, aren’t career managers, they are those who have great technical expertise in the teams they manage. Why is this important? What happens when you have a spike in the work for a production line, or have a problem that you need to solve? This can go to the middle management core, who can help to eliminate impediments and educate and advocate for their teams throughout the organization.

Of course, the culture of middle management must support these changes, and have the courage to try new things. Otherwise, middle management can often be the biggest impediments to successful adoption, as they work alone, try to cover themselves so they rise to the top and otherwise try to optimize their own organizaitonal silos. Great companies have their middle managers frequently working together, learning and sharing ideas in a culture of collaboration, so they can achieve the strategic objectives of the top brass.

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