How Middle Management Determines Innovative Leadership

A series of blog posts on innovation based on my interpretation of The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen.


Is there a difference between leaders who can innovate vs. leaders not cut out for the job of innovation? Absolutely. Surprisingly, leaders are only going to be as innovative as their middle management allows them to- below we explain how and why.

Managers think they control the flow of resources at their organization , but at the end of they day they probably have the least control. Customers and investors dictate the flow of resources because companies without satisfied and paying customers will never be successful.

The question to then ask here is whether customers lead organizations to innovation- the answer is absolutely not. If anything, they are more prone to misleading you.

Managers also seem to think that they get to see all of the innovative thinking that their organizations have to offer- the answer to that is absolutely not.

Managers only get to see a very well-screened subset of innovative ideas generated by the organization, if that at all.

This is because middle-managers and low managers have an immense power sitting between employees of a company and those who could execute or fund an innovative idea.

Middle managers have a ton of power they don’t even realize they have. They decide on which projects to prioritize to organization leadership, and they make those prioritizations based on what types of customers and products are most profitable to the company. Middle managers are tainted by their view of how sponsorship of those projects will affect their own careers, too. This pint is critical- and leads to an environment where an organization’s middle management ends up being the start and stop point for innovation.

Middle managers also try to overcompensate for the lack of innovative change by trying to alter the growth rate of the emergent market they are targeting so it can become big enough to make a meaningful dent in the trajectory of profit when it comes to a project or effort they have endorsed. This is especially common in the Department of Defense (DoD) where middle managers paint the ultimate picture around their efforts that they consider innovative. Remember, innovation does not necessarily start off addressing a large market need- it starts in a niche. So efforts to try and falsify growth rates does not lead to innovative ideas surfacing- but masks sustaining products behind a veil of newness.

Somehow, middle managers in large organizations believe that failure is bad- they cannot fail. If a project is championed that fails, it would be taken as a black mark on the manager’s career who championed that project.

Because failure is so crucial in addressing needs of a small niche in the market, and is essential to anything innovative, this is a powerful deterrent to any innovative ideas surfacing under a traditional organization structure.

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