Monday, January 08, 2007

Innovation and middle management power

Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote an article for Harvard Business Review in 1982 that was reprinted in 2004, entitled "The Middle Manager as Innovator". She points out that middle management drives changes that increase organization capacity.

Among the many things she says that I agree with, she talks about how lack of power in these ranks can interfere with the innovative process, because it inhibits collaboration. When power is unclear, unfocused, or unevenly distributed, managers are more concerned about protecting their turf than collaborating for the greater good. The successful middle manager in these environments uses their power to persuade their peers to support their cause. This is the good side of politics, influencing others to accomplish the greater good. In order to be successful at doing things out of band, almost surely these managers will need extra resources, and that will likely come from the manager's peers, and he or she must have a little support from higher up to prevent a veto from stopping the project.

One of my coaches pointed out that in order to make things happen, you have to have the right combination of Power, Influence and Authority. The required mix depends on the particular objective. I think in Ms Kanter's article, some times she is talking about influence and authority rather than power. Influence is the ability to change someone else's direction based on a number of skills including communication, persuasion, trust, vision, etc. Authority is that property which is granted to you by someone who has higher authority - it is what the manager is officially allowed or expected to do. Power is the ability to inflict consequences, good or bad, on others.

I have worked for companies where collaboration was really difficult, and I think that it was the lack of power anywhere in the organization that was a key cause (when this is the case, authority and influence must play a larger role, leaving things unbalanced). Some of my peers an I analyzed what it was we were actually empowered to decide. It was almost nothing, limited to who gets promoted and how much to compensate them. This was an intentional part of the culture, Darwinism. One influential leader told a group of new managers, "If you want to get something done, don't ask for approval, just do it". This was felt to foster an innovative environment, and in older times it worked. But when power is fleeting and temporary, and everyone is trying to make their own project successful, you will see very little collaboration.

Collaboration is key, in my opinion, to long term success and market leadership with innovation that improves not only what is delivered, but how. To accomplish that, make sure your middle management is empowered.

1 comment:

Judy said...

Jeff
Happy New Year !!
Couldn't agree with you more. Lack of power or empowerment has frustrated middle management of ages. It's a total employee dissatifier. Some times the best solution is to define your sphere of influence and target stakeholders who can help advance your project(s), deliverables or department goals. It's not only knowing what you need to influence but also having a good change management plan to ensure successful execution.