Why Middle Management Kills Innovation and How to Make it Past the Pitfalls

Why Middle Management Kills Innovation and How to Make it Past the Pitfalls

Why Middle Management Kills Innovation and How to Make it Past the Pitfalls

Corporate innovation is no longer optional; in order to keep up in today’s dynamic business environment, companies need to think outside the box and execute faster.  

Is your management strategy up to the challenge?

Innovation challenges facing middle management

Innovation can get bogged down when companies fail to embrace a culture of innovation or lack the wherewithal to train their leaders the skills necessary to innovate.

According to a Center for Creative Leadership study conducted in 2014, an overwhelming 94% of participants agreed that innovation is a key element in success, and 77% noted that their organizations have tried to improve innovation.  However, only 14% of respondents were confident in their company’s ability to effectively employ innovation.  Those aren’t great odds.  What could that other 86% be doing differently in order to break the mold?

  1. Work innovation into your organizational culture.  This is not an overnight transformation, but it is well worth the effort.  Create an environment that gives your people the permission to share and pursue new ideas.  Praise innovation as you integrate it into your culture so that everybody can appreciate its value.

  1. Ask questions.  Open up the floor to new ideas. Ask your team if they have any thoughts on a fresh approach to an issue or an old way of doing things; no matter how small, helping to improve things will boost their innovative spirit.  Beyond that, as a leader, ask your team how you can better serve them or what changes would benefit them in the workplace.  Lead by example to show them that just because “that’s how we’ve always done it” doesn’t mean it’s the only way.  Be willing to ask questions and run with some of the answers you’re given (strategically, of course).  

  1. Experiment.  Often times the issue with innovation isn’t a lack of idea, it’s a failure to execute properly.  When implementing any new system or project, expect it to evolve.  Don’t start a single thing with the mindset of “this is how we do this from now on.”  Instead, recognize that it’s okay for the process to be messy.  Some things will work, some things won’t work, and some things will need work—that’s all part of the fun.  

  1. Train your leaders.  If the goal is to integrate innovation into your culture, you will need buy-in from all levels of the organization, and step one is to get your leadership team on board.  Middle managers need to be trained to support this objective.  Firstly, it is imperative that they do not feel stifled.  Empower them with trust.  Furthermore, training them in innovation means helping them find the balance between the routine operational efficiency and trying new things.  

Take a beat to reflect on developing your leadership team.  What can you do to train middle managers so that they may effectively lead your team to go forth confidently into the realm of innovation?  You must understand their motivations and fears.  

Misaligned Incentives

Managers are often used to being driven to produce results on short-term incentive plans, so their time, resources, and patience are not yet being invested in innovation, but rather on achieving short-term goals.

Without adjusting incentivisation methods, then many middle managers are unlikely to succeed or even care much about fostering innovation.

It is understandable that in a field where efficiency and risk-mitigation are top priorities, many leaders balk at the lack of control that comes with experimenting with something new.  

That’s the thing: it is completely okay to be scared.  

Business is scary. Change is scary. And sticking them together can be terrifying.  

But as leaders, we need to acknowledge the courage that it takes to try something new and recognize failure as part of the process.  

Guess what—it won’t always stick.  

Not every idea is the best idea - most aren’t, but we stagnate when we stop trying.  If you want your business to remain relevant and competitive, make this a priority.  All members of the organization in a leadership or otherwise highly visible role need to learn the value of innovation and make the effort to adopt it into their culture. If upper-management and middle-management are unified on the matter, the rest will follow, so that is step number one.  Now, go shake things up.  


Ashkenas, R. (2012, May 1). Managers don’t really want to innovate. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2012/05/managers-dont-really-want-to-i.html

Donaldson, C. (2016, November 14). 5 steps leaders can take to boost innovation in teams. Retrieved from http://www.insidehr.com.au/5-steps-leaders-can-take-to-boost-innovation/

Horth, D., & Vehar, J. (2017, December 8). Stuck in the middle: Why innovation dies and what to do about it. Retrieved from https://www.td.org/insights/stuck-in-the-middle-why-innovation-dies-and-what-to-do-about-it


Innovation in Retail 2020

This ebook provides readers with an overview of what is happening in the space of retail innovation, and guidance for executives looking to avoid said filing, and not only survive but thrive well into the future.

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Tom Chambers

Tom Chambers is the Innovation Consultant at Collective Campus.

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