Middle management makes or breaks agility

Agile organisations develop products five times faster, make decisions three times faster, reallocate resources to highest priorities quickly and effectively (McKinsey, 2019). However middle management makes or breaks that agility, remaining a barrier to adoption and blocking the potential gains that come with holistic transformation to the agile way of working.

“Managers like to take ownership and enforce a controlled leadership style. For organisations trying to adapt agile ways of working into their business, this presents a real problem as it goes against the very essence of what agile tries to promote,” says Marc-Olivier Hilgers, principal, agile transformation and enablement, at Capgemini.

Middle Management block agility
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“Middle managers, in particular, are among the biggest challenges in becoming agile”, says Mick Burn, head of organisational change management, Europe, at Infosys Consulting.

Most middle managers, rose to that opportunity by building specific leadership skills and competencies, the agile model does not have the same roles which can be extremely confronting when the time for change comes and those same leaders are being asked to transform their organisations and simultaneously put themselves out of a job. Now there are plenty of new roles in the agile organisation but they do require different skills and they are not about directing work.

Traditionally middle management is where what to deliver and how to deliver it comes together, these leaders own resources and make decisions on priority. In agile the power dynamic is changed and it is a major change for these leaders. When middle managers realise that their roles have been disrupted and their power based (control over resources) has changed they tend push back on change, this is where middle managers break agility.

Strong leadership is vital to the success of agile but leadership needs to be courage enough to enable change” (Hilgers, Capgemini).

There are new roles and opportunities for leaders in middle management but they need to be explained. If you don’t want the ‘Granite Middle’ of your organisation to slow or stop transformation you need to get them on the journey. Never underestimate the importance of WIFM – Whats in it for me? when communicating the business vision and goals to the team, building trust comes from providing people with a sense of security and safety through transition.

Key Takeaways

  • Any Agile transformation requires the middle management to be on board or they will passively block its success, making or breaking agility.
  • Agile does not have a specific role for traditional middle management functions, to get these leaders on board for the change requires a comprehensive communication plan that mitigates the security and loss of power these individuals face
  • Large scale culture change is best led by people leaders, so a clear business vision and goals are critical to the communication plan
Synopsis of an article from Raconteur
Middle managers can make or break agility
by Emma Woolacott
Published 30th September 2019


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