Challenge of middle management in transformation processes
Visual: Karl Bredemeyer

If you are a profes­sio­nal agile coach, scrum master or expe­ri­en­ced consul­tant, the following scen­a­rio is likely some­thing you have come across before. During trans­for­ma­tion proces­ses, top manage­ment is not enab­ling agile princi­ples to effec­tively perme­ate the orga­ni­sa­tion. This is largely because they are failing to change their mind­set first and to take the middle manage­ment along in this trans­for­ma­tion process so those do not become orga­niz­a­tio­nal actors, who are more likely to stand in the way of a meaning­ful change process.

This tendency is regu­larly eviden­ced by the comments of employees. Frequently, staff blames second-level leaders as more likely to favour a top-down mana­ge­rial approach, display­ing resis­tance to a more open, agile mind­set. Howe­ver, the blame cannot be enti­rely laid at the feet of these middle mana­gers. Often top manage­ment shows little inte­rest in explai­ning the effects of the change process or to convince the mana­gers to fully support the change process. This is because the top manage­ment has not inter­na­li­sed the agile princi­ples them­sel­ves. This crea­tes the impres­sion that only the middle manage­ment is the clay layer that is not willing to adapt — which is not enti­rely true.

The real atti­tude of second-level manage­ment to agile transformation

Perhaps the most meaning­ful insight comes from second-level manage­ment them­sel­ves. This layer of leaders­hip feels regu­larly exclu­ded from the process, citing that they’re missing infor­ma­tion, not recei­ving orien­ta­tion and gene­rally feel shut out from the over­all opinion-making process concer­ning the change. From their point of view, top manage­ment lacks commit­ment to lead the way. Accord­ing to middle manage­ment, top manage­ment needs to invest more time in provi­ding orien­ta­tion and explai­ning what impact the change has on the opera­tio­nal daily work of the orga­ni­sa­tion as a whole.

Admit­tedly, as an agile coach, I frequently observe that second-level manage­ment has a sympa­the­tic atti­tude as to how these condi­ti­ons arise. They link their perspec­tive to top management’s busy sche­dule and their tendency towards distrac­tion in gene­ral. In this respect, the opinion of the second manage­ment level is extre­mely helpful to better under­stand what the real problem is.

How top manage­ment can better imple­ment change

As an agile coach, you may have obser­ved that top manage­ment does micro­ma­nage to a great degree. Many members of the execu­tive team are in fact not the masters of their day-to-day sche­dule but rather their slaves. The reason is that top manage­ment is attemp­t­ing to manage many diffe­rent issues in detail instead of having most opera­tio­nal tasks solved by their staff. This leads to a lack of time to lead the people what is espe­cially crucial in change processes.

Top manage­ment acts accord­ing to the estab­lis­hed leaders­hip princi­ples of the previous century. This supports a perva­sive atti­tude that top manage­ment is suppo­sed to be the one and only main­stay and the all-seeing eye of the company. It is assu­med that the top manage­ment has to have a compre­hen­sive under­stan­ding of every single issue that occurs in “their” orga­ni­sa­tion, although by now, this is simply impos­si­ble in a complex, and dyna­mic environment.

This atti­tude charac­te­ri­ses the leaders­hip style of top manage­ment in most of the compa­nies I have worked with. It is either based on a lack of awareness of their leaders­hip respon­si­bi­lity towards their employees or on a gene­ral lack of trust. From top manage­ment point of view, others are regu­larly not seen as equally capa­ble of contri­bu­ting to the success of the company like them. Espe­cially when it comes to criti­cal feed­back about their own respon­si­bi­li­ties. In addi­tion, top manage­ment some­ti­mes even belie­ves that second-level employees and mana­gers must be exclu­ded from the compre­hen­sive over­view of the company in order to secure their own power. In fact, these atti­tu­des are part of the mind­set that has to be chan­ged by the top manage­ment upfront.

As long as the top manage­ment does not start to colla­bo­rate with each and ever­yone in the company on eye level, spend their given time mainly to lead their people and support an envi­ron­ment of trust and conti­nuously lear­ning, they will remain captive within their over­whel­ming workload and there­fore under­mine the success of the agile trans­for­ma­tion as a whole. The exces­sive workload of the top manage­ment based on micro­ma­nage­ment leads to a lack of leaders­hip. And leaders­hip is crucial for the success of any change process parti­cu­larly when it comes to an agile transformation.

Taking on the mantle of the agile coach

In summary, for an agile trans­for­ma­tion to really work, top-level manage­ment needs to focus on their commu­ni­ca­tion and their leaders­hip above all else. Although undoub­tedly valu­able, an exter­nal agile coach is not the univer­sal solu­tion to all chal­len­ges –  the top manage­ment needs buy-in fully as well. Merely imple­men­ting agile princi­ples as a metho­do­logy does not make for an agile orga­ni­sa­tion. Instead of of top mana­gers tenden­cies towards micro­ma­nage­ment and the quest for an omni­po­tent view of the company, they must care­fully consi­der how an agile mind­set can perme­ate the entire organization.

In conclu­sion, top manage­ment needs to take the time to involve espe­cially second-level manage­ment. These play­ers – who are so often blamed for stymi­eing trans­for­ma­tion proces­ses – need to be more fully inclu­ded in any change process but espe­cially in an agile trans­for­ma­tion process. After all, the keystones of agile trans­for­ma­tion are open commu­ni­ca­tion, trust and orien­ta­tion enab­ling ever­y­body invol­ved to perform at their best. There­fore, the top manage­ment needs to lead by example and fully embrace agile. 

The author of the arti­cle Nils Kramer is a valu­able part of the Netz­werk­kno­ten network. As manage­ment consul­tant and agile coach, he is specia­li­sed on leaders­hip and trans­for­ma­tion processes.