Middle managers are strategists too, you know

Guest blogger:

Dr Alex WrightAlex Wright, Lecturer in Strategic Management at The Open University Business School.  

Middle managers frequently get the blame when things go wrong. They are often portrayed in both the media and academic worlds as opposing the strategies developed by senior managers; as deliberately creating roadblocks by taking ineffective actions; as ‘foot-dragging’, assigning strategic activity a low priority; and, worse of all, middle managers can sabotage the carefully crafted strategies of senior management teams

I want to argue that far from being the problem, when it comes to strategy, middle managers are often the ones that think and act strategically. In my experience, the old idea that senior managers are the strategic thinkers and middle managers are the implementers needs rethinking. I am going to list four myths associated with middle managers and strategy and then draw from my research to debunk these myths or, at least, cause you to rethink your assumptions.

Myth No.1:  Middle managers focus on operations while senior managers concentrate on strategy

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Strategy or strategy work is a high status activity. It has become taken for granted that senior managers are somehow natural strategists, while middle managers are somehow natural implementers. When a middle manager gains promotion and becomes a senior manager, it is assumed that somehow their natural proclivities change and they are now competent and happy strategists.

My experience in the UK and overseas suggests that this may be the case, but equally likely is the situation where middle managers take the strategic lead in their organisations. Traditional views of strategy saw formulation and implementation as separated activities, yet we have known for some time that strategy is just as likely to emerge as it is to be planned and executed. Emergent strategy, I contend, is most likely to evolve through the acts of middle managers than of senior managers, for it is only middle managers who have the flexibility and willingness to change and adapt needed for emergent strategy to appear.

Myth No.2:  Middle managers enjoy uncomplicated relationships with senior managers and staff

This myth stems from the idea that the organisation chart represents the relationships in an organisation. It frames the relationships middle managers have as fixed, stable and functional. Middle managers have relationships with their bosses and with their staff; if they have horizontal relationships, these are most likely to be with other middle managers.

Again, this may be so, but in my experience middle managers often work within an action net of complex relationships; some stable, some transient, some clear, some very unclear. I have seen organisations where middle managers are just as likely to speak with customers, suppliers, stakeholders, trade associations and professional networks, as they are with their immediate colleagues. Through these contacts, I suggest, middle managers develop their knowledge that is then exercised when undertaking strategy work.

Myth No.3:  Middle managers have little contact with external management consultants

This myth is perpetuated by both those who write about management consultancy and those who write about strategy. The consultant/client relationship is often depicted as a relationship involving organisations not people. However, when we dig below the surface we find people interrelating, getting on, disagreeing and compromising. Once a contract has been struck, management consultants spend more time with middle managers than they do with senior managers.

I have seen examples where the relationship with the organisation was passed on from senior manager to middle manager to get the work done. Similarly, I have seen the relationship emerge and strengthen with a middle manager before being presented to senior managers. I have also spoken with consultants who tell me that they can only really be honest about the issues they have encountered with middle managers because, in their view, senior managers only want good news (another myth, perhaps). Consultants make a difference on how strategy is understood within the organisations that employ them. They do this, I argue, through their conversations with middle managers rather than senior managers.

Myth No.4:  Middle managers only implement strategy they don’t want to do anything else

This myth relates to Myth No.1, but the difference here is the assumption that middle managers do not want to think or act strategically. Again, this myth sees strategy as conventionally implemented after strategic decisions have been made. It suggests that senior managers identify themselves as strategists, while middle managers’ sense of identity sees them as implementers. Once again, this may be the case for some, but it is not a universal truth.

My research suggests that middle managers can and frequently are capable strategists. Further, I have seen situations when senior managers are not active strategists, when they are too busy doing other things to think and act strategically. When this happens, an organisation can experience a strategic void or absence. It is middle managers, that much maligned breed, that often step into the breach and fill this void, and they do this by drawing on whatever is at hand to fashion effective and relevant strategies. Middle managers are not the problem, more likely they are the solution, and organisational processes should be developed that help rather than hinder them.

Final words

In this blog I have avoided presenting the idea that strategy can be boiled down to decision making, or indeed, that organisations have strategies. This is not my position. For me, strategy can include decision making, but it involves much more and if we only concentrate on decision making we miss the vast majority of actions that can be discerned as strategic. Further, to focus on what strategies organisations have misses the point. Much more productive, I feel, is to focus on what strategists do, how strategy-work is accomplished not what it is.

2 thoughts on “Middle managers are strategists too, you know

  1. Nice blog Alex.

    Amazingly the portrayal of middle management as the NCOs of business and commerce still persists in so many organisations, with the unfortunate corollary that ‘senior’ management then retreat into the boardroom and become divorced from implementation and the feedback that it provides.

    As a fan of Moltke the Elder’s dictum ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy’, the idea of emergent, crafted and often expedient strategy, preferably continuously evolved with the help of players up and down the organisation, is surely a much more usable concept in the real world.

    I sometime fear that Business Schools can do great damage when they foster a belief that business activity can be compartmentalised under labels such as ‘Strategy’ or ‘Operations’.

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