C-Suite Advisory

Is the Frozen Middle Holding Up Your Digital Transformation?

CEOs and their leadership teams seek digital transformation and cloud adoption to compete for success in the new economy. Despite the prevailing advice and encouragement to move rapidly on transformation plans, CEOs know all too well the challenges associated with authorizing and implementing sweeping digital and cloud adoption. Organizations want to pursue digital initiatives, yet so many transformation journeys drag on with limited success. The question is, why do so many attempts to leverage emerging technology and modern methods fail to deliver on their expected value?

Often, the answer resides with middle management tasked with facilitating digital and cloud transformation for their companies. The enthusiasm surrounding such a new endeavor — exuberant buy-in from employees and pressing priority from executive teams — often gets a tepid response from middle managers.

Why? The answer lies in the reality that enterprises are designed to produce consistent results rather than introduce choice and variability in outcomes. The organization’s goal is to ensure consistently positive customer experiences and high-quality products. Middle managers, and the processes and teams around them, serve as safeguards that companies deliver on their commitments every time. Middle management provides a real, necessary level of checks and balances when it comes to organizational initiatives such as digital transformation and cloud adoption.

Middle managers also have a tough task — aligning project expectations with realistic outcomes. The same behaviors that serve companies in delivering value leave middle managers frozen, unable to bridge the gap between today’s needs and tomorrow’s desired outcomes. Middle management perceives no room to maneuver without risking the success that led to this point. This “frozen middle” often feels caught in the struggle to adhere to today’s rules while implementing upgrades necessary for the future. But there are also ways to better equip those liaisons to alleviate some of the trepidation that comes with adopting digital technology and migrating to the cloud.

Mobilizing middle management leaders to transform our organizations with cloud and other emerging technology will require us to provide strategic clarity around the outcomes we seek, lead with empathy for the fears that may surface, and support evolving resource requests as teams venture forward, navigate obstacles, and experiment. We can thaw the frozen middle — and advance our organizations’ digital and cloud adoption journeys — when we embrace these action steps.

  1. Engage and listen to the personalities within the frozen middle
    The first step to softening the stances of reluctant middle management is to engage and seek to understand the personalities and motivations that populate the frozen middle in every organization regardless of industry. Middle management budgeters, for example, may understand that the CEO wants digital transformation but may require justification for expending the time and resources necessary to accomplish it. By contrast, security hawks may fear that the cloud and other emerging technology are passing trends or too risky for experimentation. Those who pride themselves on prudent planning may worry about implementing the proper structures to pursue digital adoption initiatives successfully. And worriers may doubt whether the team has the time and talent necessary to follow through on digital modernization and cloud migration plans. Listening to middle management’s concerns is key to understanding how to acknowledge, address, and alleviate them.
  2. Link digital and cloud transformation to stated business objectives
    To gain buy-in more naturally, align the cloud adoption strategy and each digital milestone to broader enterprise and IT value disciplines and the digital transformation road map. Demonstrate how the cloud will help the company achieve its stated goals and show how embracing emerging technology and modern methods will help the business compete in the marketplace. This requires an explanation of how the cloud and its digitally native tools will amplify competitive advantages in product leadership, customer intimacy, and operational excellence. Be rational, not hyperbolic, about the benefits.
  3. Quantify the benefits to justify the investment and commitment to change
    Next, thoughtfully compare the current versus the forecasted cost of ownership and quantify the financial benefits of digital modernization and cloud adoption to justify sustained investment. Create space for objections, assuage fears, and even celebrate small failures as learning while also setting clear boundaries that provide leaders and teams with the safety and courage to try. Make clear that leadership is willing to endure disruption as the organization experiments on the journey and shifts from business-as-usual to a new norm. That means anticipating varied and shifting requests for investment and providing leaders with the resources to retool their teams and processes.
  4. Embrace holistic planning to assuage the middle’s concerns
    Courting buy-in from middle managers who are safeguarding company success requires transformation plans that span people and organizational structures, processes, and technology. For the security hawks, set aside plans for building “minimally viable” solutions and embrace the reality that the organization must invest in security and compliance from the outset. Security begins in design, so build well-architected solutions that consider the comprehensive functional and operational needs of the organization. For the prudent planners, assess organizational capabilities and overall company readiness for new, digitally native methods, and then implement an integrated transformation plan to make the necessary modifications. This may include finding and growing talent internally and hiring for new skills. In addition, remain vulnerable to the idea of tapping outside expertise to navigate the transition and advise ongoing the CEO and leadership team.
  5. Address objections head-on and remain vigilant (engaged)
    Leaders cannot force change into existence alone, and early evidence of success will not necessarily ignite a more sweeping desire for transformation. Proofs-of-concept and successful pilot programs will not provide sufficient evidence that action is required, and advocacy by itself will only heighten fears if not paired with other methods. Instead, CEOs should prepare people upfront for challenges ahead and address middle management’s objections head-on. Enlist middle managers as partners in co-developing transformation plans, and guide the frozen middle through the change ahead by providing those managers with the planning and assurances they need to honor their corporate stewardship. It is their job to ensure company success, so help these stewards manage the change and balance the transition with understanding.

    In addition, acknowledge that obstacles will arise and that plans will change. Encourage leaders to build scenario plans with mitigation strategies and invite middle management to share their experiences and join in the re-planning so that change feels less jolting as it occurs. To underscore the importance of scenario planning and re-planning, assign success ownership to a direct report, and show up personally to engage mid-management leaders and offer encouragement and resources when obstacles arise.

  6. Celebrate progress, recognize the team, and be magnanimous in moments of adversity
    Executives have an opportunity to strengthen the team and amplify a culture of community and learning through the transformation journey.

    Recognition in good times creates energy, and generosity in hard times breeds goodwill. Be thoughtful to celebrate milestones proudly together and take disruptions in stride, which will build momentum and fuel the energy and courage of mid-management to drive forward. Recognize the collective and individual contributions of leaders and teams and be magnanimous in moments of adversity. Listen, amplify the joy, and take on their pain with grace.

Ultimately, successful digital transformation and emerging technology adoption require strategic vision, venture mindset, focus, and executive sponsorship. It also requires talent, chemistry, and a collective willingness to help the frozen middle navigate the change.


Written by Jeff Townes. Have you read?

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Jeff Townes
Jeff Townes is a senior vice president and enterprise architect at Pariveda Solutions, a technology consulting firm driven to create innovative, growth-oriented, and people-first solutions. Jeff Townes is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.
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