I think I’m not the only person who’d make this observation: senior leaders get the need for innovation, and the front line gets the need for innovation, but middle managers sometimes don’t.
That’s a huge generalisation, of course. The actual situation is middle managers get innovation too, but it is often not in their interest to support it.
Middle managers are extremely operational, most of the time. They’re accountable for specific business objectives and they don’t like things that distract them or their staff.
I had this conversation once when the team and I had deployed an innovation management system featuring a game dynamic:
Manager: I don’t want my staff playing around in that innovation thing you’re running. They’re here to answer calls.
Me: Isn’t it everyone’s job to be innovative?
Manager: Nope, not really. In a call centre, the job is to answer calls.
Me: How can I get the learnings from your agents into our process then?
Manager: Run a focus group. Conduct a survey. Do anything you want, but don’t bother my agents with this stuff.
Me: Well they signed themselves up to participate and I don’t think I can tell them to stop now. They probably wouldn’t, even if I did tell them.
Manager: Well, I’m going to tell them to stop. Thank you for making me the unpopular one.
I don’t think this manager was stupid or lacked the capability to be innovative. Neither would she have said that innovation wasn’t an important thing to have.
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But she was suffering from something really common. When you introduce mechanisms to motivate employees which are unrelated and uncoupled to their line managers, you get all this push-back.
Line managers always fear they won’t be able to do their jobs if they don’t have direct control of every aspect of the day to day working lives of their employees.
At Spigit, we introduce this kind of ex-chain-of-command reward behaviour by using the psychology of game play to motivate employees to do things. You’re playing a game –albeit a very corporate one – and the rewards mainly result from the entertainment you get doing so, not the generosity of line management.
For line managers, resistance to such an approach almost never manifests itself as outright refusal to cooperate. But you do get a whole lot of meh that’s pretty hard to move along. I used to joke that doing the innovation thing in a large corporate is like trying to swim upstream in treacle for this reason. It takes disproportionate amounts of effort to get anything to happen, and it seems there’s never enough time to move everyone along that you need to.
Anyway, the recent development of using crowd tools to move innovation to the edge has exacerbated this a bit because middle managers are discovering their staff are doing innovation without their say-so, instead of authorising them to participate. Many are finding this somewhat a confrontational experience.
That’s especially true when the crowd helps create an innovation hero – someone who makes a stupendous contribution beyond their paygrade –who’s then noticed by the senior management team. Then you’ve got this whole undercutting of the power base of middle managers as well as everything else.
The situation where employees get ordered to stop being innovative is unfortunately a consequence if line management dissatisfaction gets out of hand.
But the fact is, middle managers are part of the crowd too.
And gaming mechanisms of the sort we employ can be juggled to include the notion of hierarchy, which strengthens the role of line managers instead of taking it away. Give a line manager a superpower, and let them take an active role in the innovation process. They don’t need to be bystanders with things spinning out of control.
I rather imagine most line management would rather be part of a game dynamic with their people than acting as chief-fun-pirate, doing everything possible to make sure work is as boring as possible.
This is the real opportunity that’s enabled by the latest thinking about innovation management , of course. The psychological measures now available give you the chance to deactivate organisational inertia by integrating those who actually have to give permission for things to happen into the process right from the start.