Real Leaders

5 Ways Middle Management Can Drive Innovation

Who are the leaders and changemakers in your organization? You may think it’s the research and development team or engineering. Maybe a dedicated innovation team or a C-level executive? Amazingly, the people best positioned to drive transformation and innovation at your company are those most often maligned for their lack of vision, creativity and support – middle managers.

It’s true that most transformational innovation requires buy-in and support from top leadership, but for a company to be genuinely innovative, it must nurture a culture of employee-led innovation that is embodied by staff at all levels. For that to happen, you need the support of middle management.

Why Middle Management?

Almost all companies talk about innovation, but regretfully most of them have no idea what it entails. Innovation is not about inventing new technologies and developing disruptive products – it’s about people. Innovation is a mindset; an entrepreneurial spirit that must be embraced by every employee. Unlike the Dilbert cartoon character, middle managers can play a vital role in innovation. They can serve as the bridge between the bold strategy and tangible solutions made possible by their employees. So, if you’re a middle manager, how can you help lead greater innovation at your organization? Here are a few tips:


1. Encourage Cross-functional Collaboration

Ditch corrosive company politics and adopt a win-together mindset. Make sure your employees understand that innovation can come from anyone, anytime, anywhere. It’s not limited to your team. Urge your employees to think outside their job function and across the ranks throughout the company. Encourage rotations, stretch assignments and cross-pollination of ideas, and work to make sure that employees of diverse backgrounds are comfortable speaking up and sharing their ideas. While some often find comfort in being surrounded by people who think, act and look the same, radical, innovative ideas rarely emerge from teams where everyone is from the same background or have the same experiences and points of view. 


2. Secure Executive Commitment to Innovative Ideas

Employees need to know that innovation is a priority and not merely something to which the company pays lip-service. Middle managers are uniquely positioned to serve as the connective tissue between the upper and lower levels of the organization, spotting the best ideas from employees in various roles and highlighting them to the executive team to secure buy-in and support. Too often, innovative ideas go unnoticed or are not acted upon because employees don’t know how to elevate their ideas to the upper echelons of the organization or turn a creative idea into reality. Often, they think the leaders don’t walk the talk and are merely performing innovation theatrics rather than substance. As a middle manager, it’s important to make sure your employees have a voice and can bring their perspectives to the table. You are the one who needs to hold the C-suite accountable. Keep your leadership honest by advocating and securing executive buy-in for the ideas you think most promising. Be bold and demonstrate how this disruptive new idea can positively impact the company – not only for revenue but for improved business processes, increased efficiency or enhancing customer experience.

3. Provide Resources And Support to Bring Ideas to Fruition

Creative employees with an entrepreneurial mindset will always have sparks of innovation – those moments when lightning strikes with a brilliant new idea – but they may not be skilled at executing all the steps needed to turn those ideas into real business solutions. There are no born innovators; innovation must be learned. This is where middle managers can shine, by helping their teams with coaching, planning and time management, as well as securing the resources and support needed to execute on their ideas. Connect employees with mentors both inside and outside the organization who can help develop their ideas. Allow them to set aside time from daily responsibilities to focus on innovation and work on ideas. Help them secure budgets, technologies, space or other resources needed to develop their ideas. Lastly, encourage them to experiment and learn from their failures. Remind them that it took Thomas Edison 1,000 unsuccessful attempts before he invented the light bulb.


4. Help Employees Connect Their Creative Ideas to Company Strategy

When it comes to innovation, some creative new ideas may not initially seem great, and people can be too quick to write them off or discard them. Middle managers can help creative employees iterate and improve upon their ideas – in part, by assisting them to connect their ideas to the company’s strategic objectives, even if executing on them is outside of your team’s role. You probably aren’t surprised to learn that in most organizations, the majority of employees aren’t familiar with their company’s strategic objectives and goals. Middle managers can help prioritize, simplify and clarify the company’s top strategies, and help employees tie their innovative ideas to those strategies and key performance indicators. This raises the chances of securing executive support and producing tangible outcomes.


5. Here’s How Those Above Can Help

The responsibility to innovate doesn’t rest solely on the shoulders of middle management. Those in more senior positions also play an important role, helping empower middle managers to become more innovative and giving them the support they need to lead their teams.

In many organizations, middle managers are unfortunately viewed as roadblocks to creativity or resistant to innovation. Often, this is because they are only incentivized by top executives to reach specific targets every quarter. Their bonuses, promotions and performance reviews all depend on their ability to steadily deliver on those goals, not to take risks to bring innovative breakthroughs or processes to the company, which can take time, trial and error. This must change. To develop a culture of innovation and remain competitive in the fast-changing, disruptive, digital economy, organizations must reward and incentivize innovation among their middle managers and tie at least some of their KPIs and compensation to innovation.

Ultimately, innovation is about people, not technology, and as the ones who are positioned squarely on the front lines of the organization, middle managers have the unique opportunity to be drivers of transformation. By empowering their employees with the tools and support needed to develop their creative ideas, while coordinating with and securing buy-in from executive leadership, middle managers can be the real change-makers and leaders of innovation.


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