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Unlocking the middle: how to encourage innovation in middle management

September 11, 2019

Ankur Jindal   

Vice President and Global Head of Corporate Venturing and Innovation

Middle management is often blamed for holding businesses back. How can you change that?

Lauren Bacall once said that standing still is the fastest way of moving backwards in a rapidly changing world. In business, this has never been truer. If you fail to innovate with fresh ideas and new ways of working, the competition will soon leave you behind – but, it’s far easier said than done.

“When innovation stalls, companies need to look inward to understand why. It’s all very well to say that innovation is key, but how does that translate to the people running the business on a day-to-day basis?” 

Unless there’s a safe space for employees to try and fail without it impacting their job prospects, there’s bound to be blockers on change. This inevitably bears down most on those who are most driven to achieve business objectives – middle management. So what can be done to encourage a more forward-thinking ethos from top to bottom, with the all-important middle management tier at the very centre of it?

Break down barriers

Middle managers are busy people. They’re the intermediaries between the top brass and the shop floor. Their performance is measured on meeting business objectives, controlling resources and keeping the business on target. While those at the top might communicate the need for innovative solutions and those underneath might come up with the ideas, it’s up to the middle management to make sure the wheels of business keep turning.

Because of the repercussions that missing targets can have on the company, and subsequently their career, middle managers can have a deep-seated fear of failure. With targets to meet and bottom-line objectives to achieve, promoting and implementing innovative new business practices, which may not even succeed, often sink to the bottom on their list of priorities. They’re likely at a stage in their career where they have a high dependency on their income and so value the security of processes that they know work. There can be a tendency to default to the “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” mentality but what you really want is the “no risk, no reward” attitude.

Acknowledge innovation ­- loudly

“It’s not enough to just inspire innovation, organisations need to drive a work culture where innovation is celebrated just as loudly.” 

Use a holistic approach and the workforce is more likely to embrace it wholeheartedly.

At Tata Communications, we launched the ‘Shape the Future’ intrapreneurship programme, to encourage a safe learning environment for employees to experiment with ideas and strengthen skills that will be more and more valuable as new technology is integrated into business – skills such as creativity, emotional intelligence and diverse thinking. As the Shape the Future programme allows people to become entrepreneurs and put their winning ideas into practice without the fear of losing their jobs, it brings out a daring and venturing mindset and enables them to apply the principles of lean thinking – all of which has a positive rub off on the business and organisational culture.

The results of the programme reflect the hunger for this type of initiative – in a short span, we’ve seen more than 1,000 ideas submitted from our employees globally, 124 shortlisted, 13 ventures incubated of which 6 are currently under way and 2 of these are full-fledged businesses in scale and spin-out phase.

A change in convention won’t happen overnight, but with leaders actively motivating the company as a whole, middle management can begin to feel like innovation is the norm and it’ll soon become part of the workplace culture. Netflix, Google, Facebook et al weren’t built in a day. Leaders need to be willing to take the punt themselves, providing a clear path for middle managers with a bright idea to invest the time and resources in developing it, in a way that is neither disruptive to the business, nor stifles the opportunity for employees to dare to innovate.

Reward the innovators

Put your money where your mouth is. If a member of your middle management team consistently helps to promote innovation and diverse thinking, reward them.

This is the proof point middle managers need to see: it alleviates the fear of a change in process ruining their progression prospects and reassures them that failure is a process to success, not representative of their capabilities. It shows others what happens if they do the same. So make the potential career progression through learning impossible for other employees to ignore.

Also think about incentivising the pursuit of innovation. If all their incentives are tied to the basic, day-to-day operation of the business, is it any wonder that that is what middle managers tend to focus on?

Embrace entrepreneurship

As new technologies become a more common sight in our workplaces, employees will be required to learn new skills to get the most out of them. Many rule-based tasks will be completed by tech like artificial intelligence, relieving employees of tedious tasks and freeing up their time to commit to more valuable output. This includes middle managers.

Leaders can help to change attitudes by showing middle managers how to make the most of this new-found time, encouraging them to upskill, try something new and self-improve.

“By opening up and learning other skills, middle managers will inevitably discover new ways of thinking, enhancing their ability to find alternative solutions.”

By their very nature, new technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics, will help businesses evolve and develop, allowing staff to be more productive but also more creative, which is ultimately more fulfilling. By embracing the entrepreneurial mindset, as this tech becomes integrated, employees will be set on the path for continuous self-improvement.

Encourage collaboration

As businesses take advantage of the intrapreneurial culture, collaboration should become a fundamental objective. Some ideas will require input from multiple teams before they can begin to look viable. Middle managers have a sphere of influence in the organisation and can enable collaboration across functions. They also have the ability to motivate and manage teams, converting concepts into more fully-fledged ideas that companies can put into action if they deem them worthy of investment.

It’s also important to make innovation feel like something everybody does, not just something for special teams or one-off occasions. It doesn’t have to be a mind-blowing rehaul, it could be a simple solution to an everyday problem.

“Middle managers should make everybody feel like their contributions are welcome, whether they’re submitted verbally or in writing, and even if they don’t ultimately lead to anything.”

Make innovation a way of being

Contrary to popular belief, innovation isn’t just a creative pursuit, having a structured and well planned process with thought through incentives is the key for complex organisations to unlock the middle and drive innovation led transformation in face of change.

So the reality of unlocking middle management doesn’t stem from an action specifically towards this set of employees; it’s down to a company culture of innovation. If your whole business ethos is based on encouraging staff to finding solutions to things that aren’t working, or ways to improve a process, middle managers will embody this philosophy and with that, inspire their teams to do the same.


Read our previous blog post to learn how to make teamwork as effective as possible.