It would be ridiculous to plan a bus trip up the side of a steep and winding mountain road, planning every detail of the trip in advance, and then demand that the driver checks with you for any deviations along the way. Every break or sharp turn to avoid plunging off a cliff would become a point needing your input. This top-down oversight might work if the bus was on a straight road with wide lanes, little traffic, and clear conditions, but what a failed strategy this would be for a crowded, twisting road with unexpected obstacles.
We know from real life experience that a more effective approach would be to make sure the bus driver begins by knowing the goal: safely reach the top of the mountain. Then, the driver could use his or her observations to assess dangers and options, maneuvering the bus in real time before it’s too late.
This bus metaphor comes close to describing the equally ridiculous top-down management model that might have been effective in traditional businesses with stable markets but is an ill-suited strategy for today’s marketplace. A marketplace where an entire generation of new technology is enabling business model innovations. Rapid shifts in customer expectations, make the view ahead too short, too complex, and too unpredictable to drive the enterprise bus through a fixed, top-down chain of command.
Figure: Dynamic markets don't have straight roads
What’s required for an enterprise designed for dynamic markets is the ability to anticipate new threats, constraints, and opportunities, while assessing available options and adjusting to the path ahead. Such forward-thinking businesses need a ‘learning loop’ within which teams can test, learn, and adjust their way towards a goal.
The adjustments could be anything from small refinements in a product’s design to the substantial redefinition of a planned business model. While some of the choices will be easy to define and test, others require balancing multiple interests and conflicting priorities. Now, as complexity and rates of change accelerate (a given), successful navigation will become increasingly difficult to orchestrate from the executive suite.
While the executive leadership can set broad goals (we will climb a mountain) and make strategic decisions (which mountain to climb), someone else needs to guide the team along the path towards the intended goal. And, that raises a crucial question — who should be driving the bus up the twisting mountain road?
The frozen middle
Traditionally, the responsibility for such day-to-day oversight is placed in the hands of middle management: project managers and subject matter experts. They are good at locking in on a plan and executing the instructions laid out for driving the enterprise bus. Unfortunately, they are so good that their tools and more importantly, their disposition, is designed to restrict change.
Even when the executives above, and people from the front-line teams (who, in an org-chart, would be positioned below this middle layer) want to drive faster change, the deeply-entrenched middle layer usually locks down and locks out the possibility of a responsive approach. These straight-road managers are aptly called 'the frozen middle'.
This frozen middle is a threat to enterprise transformational efforts that want to drive responsive learning loops. Asking these professional change-avoiders to suddenly become sophisticated guides of complex adjustments and pivots in a dynamic world is a ridiculous expectation. A fundamentally different set of skills is required to leverage learning loops in an enterprise setting.
Breaking free of the frozen middle
We need a new type of professional for a new type of role. A role that requires someone to navigate complex adjustments and pivot in a dynamic world.
Professionals pioneering this new role have the skills, and temperament, which allows them to compose complex solutions and adjust them on the fly. These individuals are naturally prone to viewing a challenge in its entirety. They understand the outcome alongside the choices made during planning stages, which means they can imagine alternative ways of architecting solutions. And these alternate solutions will elegantly incorporate new insights that cut across domains and perspectives.
Interestingly, while the independent entrepreneur is well recognized for embodying these characteristics, few organizations have a name or place for this role. It might seem that positions like “product manager’” should provide a landing spot for these agile individuals but in reality, those roles are being populated by frozen middle managers.
The arts are full of these holistic creative leaders. Dance has choreographers, a film has directors and editors, and music has arrangers and composers. These professionals reach a creative goal through the elegant use of the diverse elements that are at their disposal. These artists are not locked into a fixed plan but adjust in complex and creative ways to achieve an effect that they may not entirely understand in advance. Bottom line: they share a clear vision but can work out many ways of getting there, changing on the fly, while keeping the goal in mind.
It will be helpful to borrow one of these creative titles when describing the new and creatively-inclined middle layer of an organization. Calling them choreographers reflects the kind reasoning, holistic thinking, and dynamic response that is needed.
McKinsey describes how their thinking of middle management’s role has evolved. The challenge is not making the decisions themselves, but rather the choreography needed to bring multiple parties together to provide the right input, at the right time, without breeding the kind of bureaucracy that would slow down the process and diminish the decisions’ quality. Middle management should lead a dance within an enterprise, naturally seeing the big picture, crossing silos, and breaking tradition for the right reasons.
Finding the elusive choreographer
Unfortunately, these successors to the frozen middle are hard to find in typical organizations. For years, the immune system of predictable business management has fought them off. Most natural choreographers hide in traditional roles, frustrated, and are frequently considered disruptive and troublesome. Most organizations, if they even have choreographers, wouldn't know how to use them effectively. And attempts to take traditional members of the frozen middle and turn them into nimble change enablers is a mixed proposition at best.
Looking outside for these uniquely talented individuals is not easy either. Outside the arts, few traditional job titles describe this kind of work, so a choreographer’s resume often presents only cryptic clues to their skill. In my years of working to find and hire choreographers, some patterns have emerged.
Choreographers’ work history will often have radical swings across domains and roles.
During interviews, they will proudly share battle wounds from silo breaking transgressions to stories of their willingness to ignore rules for the sake of a challenge.
Most importantly, choreographers will have shaped and evolved complex ideas, and not just delivered complicated streams of work.
Executives intent on leading an enterprise transformation by creating an agile, responsive organization, will need choreographers to help drive the buses up the steep mountain. It won’t be possible to rely on the ranks of the frozen middle, so finding, nurturing, and empowering these new contributors becomes a crucial element of transformation strategy.
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.