Managing Through The Miserable Middle - 4 Root Causes Of Failure In Middle Management

4 Root Causes Of Failure In Middle Management

It’s your pet project. You’ve shaped it, sold it, sweated over it. Now it’s in trouble. It’s a lot harder than you thought. The prototype has bugs. Revenues aren’t coming fast enough. The team is rebellious. The naysayers are piling up. You’re grappling with pulling the plug.

Don’t panic. You’ve made it to the miserable middle of change.

So pervasive is this phenomenon that it has been codified it into a law of management (and life): Everything looks like a failure in the middle. Every new idea — a business startup, a new product, an internal process change — runs into trouble before it reaches fruition. The possibilities for trouble increase with the number of ways the venture differs from current approaches: the more innovation, the more problems. Problems tempt people to forget it, give up, and chase the next rainbow. If you stop the effort too soon, by definition, it is a failure. Stay with it through the bumpy times, make appropriate adjustments, and you are on the way to success.

Kanter’s Law is still alive in 2019.  Indeed, new initiatives seem to either rocket to glory or shrivel in the shadow of grander efforts. According to the Harvard Business Review, “it is just the middles that involve hard work.”  This is the tough part that comes in knowing whether the potential payoff of a new project is real or chimerical. The short answer: You can’t know.

However, you can understand the four root causes of failure in the middle.

1. Forecasts fall short.

Plans are based on experience and assumptions. On a project that attempts to innovate, delays are almost a law of the universe. It is difficult to predict how long it will take or how much it will cost to complete a project that has never been done before. A project that comes in ahead of schedule and under budget is a rare bird.

However, slipped schedules shouldn’t be fatal flaws. Companies that hope to encourage innovation would be foolish to measure people’s performance according to a script written before the venture is underway. Projects designed to be completed on Internet time often involve a scramble. An aggressive 14-week launch time could mean that not all the back-end systems were ready when the front end went live. There went the budget and the schedule!

Leaders must be prepared to secure those additional resources, beg for additional time, or at least figure out creative solutions to stretch those scarce resources.

2. Unexpected obstacles pop up.

We all know that a new path is unlikely to run true and straight, but when we encounter those nooks and valleys, twists and turns, we often start sweating. It’s a mistake to stop in your tracks. Every change brings unanticipated consequences. Teams must be prepared to not only respond, but to troubleshoot, and to make necessary adjustments. Events disrupt even the best-laid plans — take, for example, a reorganization or personnel turnover just before a product launch. Scenario planning can help identify possible problems, but the real message is to expect the unexpected.

3. Momentum slows.

After the initial thrill of getting a project off the ground, harsh reality sinks in. First, you do not have solutions to the problems you are facing.  Next, the multiple demands of your job are piling up. So of course, the people you have asked for information or help are not returning your calls. After longer-than-normal workdays, the team is tired — conflicts surface. Team members discover their differences in work styles or points of view. When teams get stuck, you can break the logjam by shuffling assignments, splitting people into subgroups, and trying a different tack. Spirits soar again when success is in sight.

Companies often hold new launch meetings at the start and blowout celebrations at the end but forget morale-boosters in the middle. Let’s look at a team working a punishing work schedule (including mandated Saturdays) and a firm go-live deadline. Two months from completion, a vice president tells the team that the date would slip by six weeks. No one will be thrilled to work 80 hours a week for six additional weeks. If this happens, reinforce existing perks (free meals, valet parking), added days off around a national holiday, and pep talks from senior management to demonstrate the team’s importance to the company. The project succeeded handsomely, and team members got special corporate awards.

4. Critics get louder.

The political problem of middles is often the most frustrating. You talked to other leaders, in the beginning, you heard no reasons not to go forward, you thought you had tacit support. However, now — just when it looks like the venture might succeed — objections pile up. Now the idea everyone applauded in principle is attacked as a threat. In the beginning, the vision is just rhetoric, the resource requirements modest, the intrusions nonexistent. Perhaps people didn’t understand what the words meant, or what the venture would imply for their territories and budgets. Then the unfolding project makes the consequences concrete. If this works, it will cost more to fund, and it will force other departments to change.

At a consumer products company, enthusiastic public commitment by the executive committee to support online business was followed by dissension once those same business unit heads realized that they’d lose staff and budget to a central internet organization. The digital team thought skeptics were converted by top-management speeches and a beautiful demo at the launch conference. However, it was never really sold.  Even right before the project went live, no one believed it would happen. People would continue to say, ‘You are never going to get it done.'”

Winning support for new ventures is not a one-time act; it continues throughout the life of a project. Teams stumble when they become so internally focused on their task that they neglect communication.

Two things tend to happen:

“You think you’ve got an agreement, and then you come back later, and the whole thing’s stuck again in arguments,” or “Maybe there was just one little detail that you assumed that everybody understood that they didn’t.”

The solution: Assume nothing, communicate everything.

The Takeaway: Exercising The Simple Lessons Of Middle Management

Leaders can get above the fray by reminding people of the vision. Powerful sponsors can use their clout to silence the critics. John, the digital policy head in a manufacturing company, got a little help from his friends to neutralize Bob, the finance vice president. Bob opposed expanding the business online because, John suspected, Bob would lose a portion of his staff to the sales group. In meeting after time-wasting meeting with John’s best people, Bob would appear to agree, then find new objections, while schedules slipped. John sought help from a key supporter, Marsha, the sales vice president. Marsha confronted Bob at an executive team meeting, embarrassing him in front of his peers. With the CEO watching closely, Bob committed to an aggressive implementation schedule.

One mistake leaders make in new ventures and change projects is to launch ’em and leave ’em — making decisions and announcements but neglecting the hard work of middles. True leadership involves persistence and follow-through. Leading, especially, change is like pushing a boulder up a hill: It takes muscle power and determination never to let go. So you can’t, or the boulder will roll down and crush you.

Miserable middles can produce happy endings if you remember some simple lessons. Be flexible. Make sure the idea is still viable. Keep selling. Involve your supporters. Nurture your team. Communicate and overcommunicate. Expect challenges and obstacles on your road to success, and celebrate each milestone.


D'Vaughn Bell
D'Vaughn Marqui Bell is a millennial entrepreneur, author and businessman. As CEO of Marqui Management he is responsible for day to day operations, management and insight. He continues his leadership development and training for the millennial generation at his website: D'Vaughn Bell

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