It is a common argument that one of the greatest blockers to organisational agility is middle management in a traditional, hierarchal organisation. The argument goes that this middle layer, typically on a decent salary with a high level of job security and financial responsibilities, are comfortable in the current status quo. This layer can block or hinder movement towards change for fear of losing that security. Command and control style leadership constrains the layer below, while detailed reporting up paints a positive picture to senior management.
While this is a stereotypical view only, there is undoubtedly some truth beneath it. But does this have to be the case? Is this position tenable in the long-term?
The short answer is, likely, no.
The business environment that all organisations operate in is changing faster than ever before. Previously, taking the risk-adverse option would keep a business safe. Now, it is likely to lead to their downfall. There are many notable examples where businesses took a risk-adverse decision to maintain the status quo and were left behind. Perhaps the most famous include Blockbuster turning down an offer to buy a young Netflix and Kodak opting against further investment in the digital camera (after having initially invented the technology!).
These types of decisions were from organisations where the company culture, driven from the top down through middle management and out to the rest of the business, was to avoid change where possible. This layer of middle management is critical to this chain and are able to either facilitate or drive change below them, or influence and demand change from senior management. If this layer is resistant, then any transformational change will be near impossible.
Some in the agile world would argue for a completely flat (or at least near enough) organisational structure, effectively removing middle management and enabling the main workforce to work autonomously. This is particularly attractive to smaller or start-up organisations who can operate easily in this way. Nike are perhaps a good example of a larger organisation who have managed to adopt and benefit from a much flatter (or more matrix style) organisational structure, but it does come with some challenges. Work is often duplicated across functions wasting resources, co-ordination across numerous stakeholders is extremely difficult, and prioritising work a challenge with little defined hierarchy in place to provide guidance.
While this approach has benefited some, it is simply not possible or practical for many organisations to adopt or operate in this way. This may be due to compliance constraints, existing structures being too costly to change or loss of organisational experience and knowledge (to name a few).
So, what if we shifted the perspective and instead of looking at middle management as a hindrance to change, see them as the leaders to navigate it?
As discussed earlier, middle management are best placed to act as a conduit between senior or strategic management and the rest of the organisation (as shown in the diagram from AgileSHIFT® above). Their central role is crucial to ensuring strategic alignment of any change or transformation initiative.
A key distinction here can also be made between a flat organisational structure and having a flat organisational culture. The former has the challenges mentioned above while the latter fits more into the concepts contained within AgileSHIFT. A flat organisation culture will still have an operational hierarchy but also embody agile principles which underpin everything that that organisation does. Examples of these principles could include (and definitely not limited to);
- Transparency– this goes hand in hand with open communication. A transparent organisation breaks down siloed thinking, promotes collaboration and helps to build trust across the organisation. Middle management can easily promote this principle ensuring there is transparency between strategic management and the rest of the organisation
- Empowerment– staff who are empowered to make decisions aligned to strategic intent will not only be more successful, but happier in their role. This is only possible if middle management do not micro-manage or focus on command and control practices
- Servant leadership– acting as both servant and leader, middle management who follow the ideals behind servant leadership offer guidance while also acting as a coach for staff. True servant leaders are judged by the success of the team beneath them
- Challenge the status quo– an organisation that encourages everyone to speak up when they see opportunity or improvements for efficiency will be much more resilient to disruption. Listening to and (where appropriate) acting on ideas from staff is a strong gauge on whether a flat organisational culture has been embraced
- Collaboration– teams and individuals effectively collaborating will create diversity in thinking and decision making, resulting in better outcomes for the business. Middle management can actively promote this, while having visibility across the organisation and its connections – something that isn’t possible in a siloed business.
Ultimately, the term flat organisational culture is interchangeable with organisational agility. Agility can be achieved in an organisation with a layer of middle management. In fact, middle managers can lead the way, embracing new ways of working. Without their support and engagement, a move towards organisational agility is in danger of either simply remaining a strategic intent (and never actually happen) or only exist in isolated pockets within the business.
Support from middle management is imperative to the success of any transformational change initiative. Clear communication and ensuring that middle management understand their role in transformation, alongside why the initiative is happening, goes a long way in gaining buy-in. This is one of the first key steps to a more open, transparent and agile organisation.