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Refocusing on the middle: The intersection of strategy and agility

Middle management is the key to any successful changes in strategy and agility.

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This post, part of a series, was adapted from APQC’s “Strategic Planning and Implementation Best Practices for Achieving Organizational Agility” best practices report. View an overview of the study findings or download the full report.

This post was written by Holly Lyke-Ho-Gland, a research program manager at member-based nonprofit APQC, the world’s foremost authority in benchmarking, best practices, process and performance improvement, and knowledge management.

As noted in the last article, rather than redesign plans, it is implementation and related change-management practices that are typically the sources of frustration for organizations enacting changes. Most changes require a culture shift, and that means changing the norms and behaviors of employees through communications and incentives during implementation.

While we all understand that communications and incentives are vital to change, there is little information on what practices help organizations improve their agility. This led us to ask the following questions.

  • Where are organizations focusing their communications and incentives currently?
  • Are there places they should change their communication plans?
  • Do incentives help improve agility and if so where?

To understand which level of communication and incentives provide the most value and improve organizational agility, we ran correlation analysis on communications about responsibilities in implementation and incentives — by role within an organization — against organizational flexibility.

Where communications matter most

So where do organizations focus their communications efforts?

If you guessed senior management, you guessed correctly. Organizations are typically good at communicating senior management’s role in changes; as seniority level increases, so does the frequency of communication about the individual’s role in implementation (Figure 1).

However, organizations tend to under-communicate with front-line employees’ and middle management, leaving organizations with either disengaged or resistant staff. These staff are often middle management and frontline employees, the people we tend to rely on to execute the changes and deliver the day-to-day value to our customers.

Credit: APQC

To further test this point, we compared the frequency of communications against organizational agility, and we found that improving the frequency of communications for supervisors and managers improves organizational agility.

That does not mean that organizations should change their communication patterns with executive and senior management; those are already effective. However, organizations should reassess their communication frequencies for employees in middle management roles.

But how do we improve communications?

Often when we talk about change and communications, we are discussing ways to create buy-in. What we found in earlier research is that buy-in itself can be a confusing concept, with a variety of interpretations, depending on corporate culture, project purpose, project phase or even the targeted individual’s standing within the organization.

\However, for the purpose of this article, let’s define “buy-in” as the acceptance of and commitment to a specific concept or course of action.

One important thing to remember is that the meaning of buy-in and what constitutes buy-in changes depending on where the targeted individual sits within the organization. For example, is the ultimate goal of buy-in the same for the CEO as it is for the client-service representative? 

Credit: APQC

As illustrated in Figure 2, the purpose of the buy-in varies depending on the target audience, which helps determine the purpose of the communications — in other words, the ultimate goal of the buy-in. Consequently, the purpose of the buy-in should provide parameters around what the targeted message conveys and how it’s distributed.

This leads us to the next point. In addition to the purpose of buy-in varying by targeted individual’s role within the organization, such purpose also changes based on the stage of the project. To ensure the message is optimized for the target audience and is timely, organizations should map out their communication plans.

One of the most difficult components of a structured communication plan is matching the message with the purpose or phase of the initiative. To address this communication, phases are typically segmented by purpose. Focusing on the purpose of each phase allows you to identify what you are trying to get the audience to do and find the best strategy to support that purpose.

For example, if the purpose of the message is to create awareness of the change, you will want to use one-way communications such as an email to explain what the change is, why it’s occurring and who will be responsible for managing it. On the other hand, if the purpose is to ensure employees are committed to the initiative, a face-to-face session in which employees can ask questions and provide suggestions would be appropriate.

Where to focus initiatives

We also assessed the effectiveness of incentives by role (Figure 3). Typically, implementation incentives for executives are considered twice as effective as those for front-line employees. Similar to communications on implementation roles, organizations tend to prioritize incentives for senior and executive management. However is that approach enough to drive agility?

Credit: APQC

Once again we wanted to dig in and determine where changes to incentives would make the most difference. When comparing the effectiveness of incentives against organizational flexibility, the general trend is that incentives do, in fact, matter (Figure 4). The effectiveness of the incentives, regardless of role, improves organizational flexibility.

Credit: APQC

However, the greatest impact of improving the effectiveness of incentives is for managers, supervisors and front-line workers. As incentive effectiveness increases, organizational flexibility competency improves from “not effective” to “very effective” incentives — particularly for managers, supervisors, and front-line workers.

Middle management (i.e., management and supervisors) can be an organization’s greatest ally or barrier to the implementation of new initiatives. Middle managers have the greatest potential to act as change agents. But in many ways, middle management has the most to lose from new initiatives.

These managers are not typically responsible for sponsoring the new initiatives (as senior and executive management levels are) and in some cases have built their careers on behaviors and norms that reflect the current direction and goals of an organization. To overcome middle management’s resistances to change, organizations should adopt techniques including communication, training and incentives.

Hence, it makes sense that organizations with effective incentives for middle management would see the largest gain in organizational agility.

To ensure successful implementation of a change initiative, front-line workers have to adjust how they accomplish work on a day-to-day basis. This requires engaging them in the change process and working with them to adopt new behaviors.

APQC reports in “Transformational Change—Making It Last” that best-practice organizations combine rewards with ongoing training and mentoring to ensure enterprise-wide adoption of new behaviors. These organizations track and use incentives for the adoption of new behaviors and use the new behaviors as key performance indicators in performance reviews and promotions.

Overall, organizations that want to improve their agility need to assess their engagement plans — particularly their incentives and communications strategies for front-line and middle management. This will help organizations generate buy-in, speed up execution, and include those who will execute the new behaviors on a daily basis.

In the final article in this series, we will explore the obstacles of organizational agility and discuss some ways to address them.