2018: The Year of the Middle Manager

How the fortunes of corporate innovation programs this year will be shaped by the engagement and integration of middle managers vise-vie Corporate Entrepreneurship 2.0

Photo by Ben Rosett on Unsplash

At the beginning of the new year every expert blogger rolls out their predictions of the future. Rather than claim far-reaching insights into the unknowable, I will just make this one simple claim based on a combination of gut feeling, passing whispers from actors in the field, and a bit of wishful thinking.

I believe, in the area of corporate innovation and entrepreneurship, 2018 will be known as “The Year of the Middle Manager”.

In 2017, across blog posts, case studies, and opinion pieces, middle managers have been derided for their role in inhibiting if not outright blocking the advance of innovation ideas and applications within organizations. But, as I’ve blogged previously, this is both a product of their role in the organization and the nature of their involvement in innovation, or lack thereof.

…middle managers are often left outside the innovation loop, especially those in support functions. Corporate entrepreneurship programs tend to recruit from younger employees; startup engagement is the primary concern of the innovation/VC team. While middle management support is expected, no one bothers to explain the nature or justification for that support.
- Innovation for the Middle Manager, October 22nd, 2017

2018 will finally the year that corporations finally wake up to this reality and, rather than simply complaining about, will start investing in the evolution of their middle managers.

But How?

In the past, within the traditional organization hierarchy, the role of middle managers was to serve as gatekeepers, filtering ideas and information upwards to help upper management make better decisions and then translating those decisions back down to their employees to set a day-to-day regimen. Many of those organizational charts have changed, either flattened or turned into matrices, and, to bypass the “frozen middle” of innovation, HR departments rolled out suggestion boxes which eventually evolved into corporate entrepreneurship programs that allowed employees to get their ideas directly in front of the eyes of decision makers.

Thus, employees are becoming more empowered and more entrepreneurial; but at the same time, middle managers are being left out. However, I believe middle managers still have an important role to play.

First of all, not all ideas are good ideas; in fact most of them are not good at all… someone needs to filter them out. Why not the middle manager? They have the experience and know-how to understand both internal and sector dynamics; they just need to be trained how to evaluate and nurture those ideas according to lean principles, and also be incentivized accordingly. Middle managers can continue to serve as gatekeepers, but gatekeepers that work with their team according to lean principles, validating ideas in the market before pushing them up the chain.

Secondly, managers know how to motivate and manage. Many innovation projects fail due to poor planning and poor management; creative individuals are great at providing the first spark, but well-managed teams execute consistently and effectively over the long term. Even if managers are not the idea owners, they can be critical in moving those ideas forward.

Finally, given their experience and stature within the organization, these middle managers can serve as great connectors, bridging divides across departments or even companies, helping to get things done quickly where traditional processes and procedures would have failed. Middle managers, correctly positioned and properly motivated, can be ideal innovation mentors for an organization’s innovation programs.

The primary focus for innovation mentors is to push teams quickly through multiple cycles of the lean startup process — hypothesize, build, test, learn;rinse and repeat. This involves questioning their assumptions, providing different points of view, and suggesting ways to test and learn. More importantly, it means helping the team get rid of barriers to progress by making calls and connecting them to people within his/her network.
- Innovation Mentors for Innovation Teams, Nov. 19th, 2017

Which leads me to my prediction: in 2018, in the “Year of the Middle Manager”, managers will not just be engaged in innovation programs, they will be the ones leading them.

Corporate Entrepreneurship 2.0

Photo by Alice Achterhof on Unsplash

Currently we run company-wide corporate entrepreneurship programs for a number of leading corporations, crowdsourcing new business ideas from employees across the spectrum and helping them to develop those ideas into actual businesses. However, I believe the future state of corporate entrepreneurship programs will be more informal and continuous, occurring at the department-level rather than company-wide; and rather than being led and administered by an innovation department, the middle managers will be the ones in charge.

Middle managers are perfectly positioned to push and execute lean innovation projects within the organization. They are close enough to the action to get their hands dirty and produce results working hands-on with their team while at the same time enabled with enough authority to take minor decisions and measurable risks. They know who to connect to in order to get things done and can lead and motivate their team to achieve quantifiable results within set time frames. In fact, middle managers are already known as the key linchpin in the organization, functioning as facilitators, nurturers, and selectors of creativity; in the new version of corporate entrepreneurship that role will the formalized.

The corporate entrepreneurship program of tomorrow will not be a program at all, it will simply be the way of doing things, the process of testing and growing new ideas, managed and executed entirely by middle managers. Middle management is about to be completely redefined and re-empowered.

Is your organization ready?


Make Innovation Work

Core Strateji is a strategy consulting firm that specializes in supporting leading companies to transform into ambidextrous organizations. Are you ready to move your innovation activities forward?

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