What is Middle Management?

One morning, the CEO of a large company wakes up with a great idea. She gathers her Department Heads and the ball starts rolling.

A few months later, an engineer pushes “Deploy” and the new product is online.

What a great collaboration between the Top Management and the Production Team! One has the vision, the other the know-how. Between the two of them, there is nothing they can’t do!

But, as we all know, the Department Heads don’t talk directly to the Production Team. They talk to the next rung on the ladder and ideas and plans trickle down through a middle layer.

The Production Team doesn’t talk directly to the Top Management. Their ideas and questions have to percolate up through that infamous barrier that separates know-how from vision.

What is Middle Management?

Sure, it’s the hierarchical organisation as a left-over of the Industrial Revolution. Everyone needs a boss.

Sure, it’s career planning. The only way to get ahead is to rise up the corporate ladder.

But more often than not, Middle Management is the price we pay for scaling a business blindly. When we do more work by just adding more people, the overhead costs go up. We’ll need collaboration, we’ll need communication. We’ll need reports and slides and meetings and people to run them.

These people can’t lay out the vision and lack the know-how to do the actual work.

Middle Management is the fatty tissue that holds the organs together. We need some of it to survive. But while a low BMI is a serious condition, the real epidemic is obesity. I’ve yet to see a company that had too few managers.

There is this stereotype that Middle Managers are useless. Overhead that doesn’t do anything. Dilbert’s Pointy-Haired Boss. Those that can’t, meet. That’s an unfair representation. Most people in Middle Management are smart and hard-working. Managers, coaches, executives, Scrum Masters, team leaders… People who can bring a lot of value to your organisation, but are locked in a position where they make it difficult for others to do their job.

That’s not a problem of inept individuals. It’s bad organisational design. What a waste it is to have smart people in useless positions.

Look for patterns where one team is blocked by another. If Marketing always needs to wait for IT to launch a new online campaign, that’s where you can cut down. There will be a room filled with people talking about what needs to be done. That’s where we want to cut.

That room will be full of bright people. That’s an opportunity, not an issue. Redesign and reorganise the teams to make sure the room is always filled with those that do the work, not those that only talk about it.

The goal of any organisation that wants to get in shape is to cut down on this fatty tissue. We need to design the departments and teams in such a way that they can self-organize. Inter-team dependencies should be the exception rather than the rule.

That’s easier said than done.

The good news is that losing weight is a lot easier when you’re morbidly obese.