Innovation initiatives have a habit of causing excitement and expectation; the organisation is trying something different and wanting to do new things. Senior management are anticipating the brand new shiny ideas, and front-line employees can’t wait to be rid of their daily frustrations. So what could go wrong? However, in all this excitement, there’s a group that is usually neglected in the engagement strategy – the middle managers. Often it’s assumed that these managers will support all the company initiatives. It’s their role to toe the line and make sure others do. They’ll buy in surely? Actually, they don’t.

The role of a middle manager is to maintain the status quo and ensure that set targets are met and the organisational cogs keep turning and working as expected. They are not needed to pursue flights of fancy, a.k.a. ideas, they are employed to keep order and manage resources.

And then they and their team are asked to innovate. What’s in it for the manager? If they are measured on meeting their current objectives, innovation will be seen as a distraction to the “real work” with no guaranteed rewards at the end.

So instead of ideas flowing freely through the organisation and being implemented as quick as you can blink, the ideas get stuck.

Really stuck.

Middle managers become the blockers. They are not intentional blockers, but unconsciously (mostly), they get their team to focus on the current deliverables, prioritising the now, because that’s what they get “kicked on” if it doesn’t get done. As a result, their team begins to learn that although innovation is a goal of the organisation, it’s either for another team or is done in their own time.

This obviously causes innovation to stall, caused by the very people that should be the biggest supporters in the organisation.

So how can this be overcome? Here are some practical ways that can help managers become supporters of innovation.

1. Review the roadblock

Consider how your business model and management structure may be inhibiting innovation. Do you favour those less imaginative staff who keep the day-to-day ball rolling, over the more unreliable but incredibly creative & strategic individuals? Sitting down directly with your middle managers to ask them what they’re struggling with and discuss how to overcome any roadblocks can also be invaluable.

2. Consider the measures

Check how you measure manager performance. Do managers get rewarded for innovation? Can they personally gain out of innovation? Although not all managers need this to be in place, it will help the “crustier” ones to change. The “what’s in it for me?” question begins to be answered.

3. Visible recognition

Celebrate managers who have made innovation happen in their teams. Create positive envy, so the other managers want the limelight. Symbolism and overt recognition in the organisation can work to your advantage here.

4. Bake innovation into career progression

Promote due to innovation activity. Demonstrate how having an innovative attitude is crucial to advancing in the organisation. Ensure that every development course puts innovation into the agenda. Eventually, the message gets through!

5. Successful team = successful manager

Most managers are a success because they have a successful team. Now the manager may have built and created that team, but it is the team that maketh the manager. The manager needs to realise that if they harness their team’s creativity and apply it to their own situations and problems, that team will be very high-performing, and the manager will look very good.

6. Remove the barriers

Make it easier for a manager to support innovation. If the organisation uses time codes, create an line entry for innovation. If your managers need help, give them the training and the confidence to be innovative. Make the messages clear from the top – if you want innovation, you need to create space to do things differently. Perhaps you need to provide “Get out of jail free” cards, like the CEO at Extended Stay America hotel. Removing the barriers removes the excuses.

Middle management can make or break your innovation programme. You can have some success, but you will only truly be able to embed innovation into your organisation if your managers are on your side and value the results of innovation.

By Harvey Wade

About the author

As Director of Innovation Strategy at Mindjet, Harvey Wade provides strategic direction and support to Mindjet’s key clients, as they engage their workforce and customers to identify ideas that solve and overcome key challenges. Based in the UK, he has over 17 years’ experience in the financial services sector, working for Commercial Union, CGU, Aviva and Allianz Insurance, where he designed, set up and ran the employee ideation and innovation program. He is a graduate of Warwick University with a bachelors in Chemistry.

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