Knowledge@Wharton recently published an interesting article on research showing middle managers are the most important people in knowledge-intensive industries for delivering the greatest impact on company performance – more important than senior executives or the “creative innovators.” Why?
1) Middle managers turn “ideas” from the creative innovators into “projects” that can be completed. I have a friend who calls herself “the idea person.” She comes up with great ideas, but never steps up to actually help execute the idea itself. According to this research, innovators in knowledge-intensive industries are similar. They come up with great ideas, but need a skilled manager to put into place a project plan that will help them work through the idea to deliver a valuable product or service.
“The best managers are able to work closely with the innovators to turn their ideas into realistic project plans, he adds, and they are effective at motivating the team and facilitating ‘collective creativity.’”
2) Middle managers coordinate the work of others. For creative people, it can be easy to focus on your latest, greatest idea to the exclusion of other work going on around you. Managers step into that, helping to refocus creative effort on ideas that have the greatest potential to drive success for the company as a whole.
“It was middle managers, rather than innovators or company strategy, who best explained the differences in firm performance. Managers accounted for 22.3% of the variation in revenue among projects, as opposed to just over 7% explained by innovators and 21.3% explained by the organization itself – including firm strategy, leadership and practices.”
3) Middle managers are primarily responsible for creating a culture in which the innovators can deliver their best work. Often the brunt of jokes about being paper-shufflers at best and impediments to progress at worst, good middle managers ensure innovators have the space they need to do what they do best, which isn’t paper shuffling. By taking care of the elements of business necessary to success, good middle managers free innovators to create, to advance the organization to the next stage.
What’s your experience with management? Are you a creative innovator, a middle manager, a senior leader? Do you agree with the research or believe middle managers usually more closely resemble the pointy-haired boss in Dilbert cartoons?
About Derek Irvine
The VP of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their organizations. As a renowned speaker and co-author of "The Power of Thanks" and "Winning with a Culture of Recognition," he teaches companies how to use recognition to proactively manage company culture. Derek holds a B.Comm and Masters of Business Studies from the Smurfit Graduate Business School at University College Dublin.