AWS Cloud Enterprise Strategy Blog

The Frozen Middle—Part One: Understanding

First in a two-part series

In many of our conversations with customers, we hear talk of a “frozen middle”—middle managers in IT who are reluctant to change and either block or slow down attempts at transformation. The idea is that senior leadership wants to gain the benefits of the cloud and digital transformation while line employees, especially software developers and infrastructure engineers, are also eager to employ new ideas they are learning about. It is only middle management, the theory goes, that is having trouble finding its place in the transformed world and therefore actively resisting it.

Let’s start by accepting that we are all middle managers in some sense, unless we are individual contributors. Everyone reports to someone higher in the organizational chart, except perhaps a CEO or Executive Director. Even then they are overseen by a board of directors and shareholders or other stakeholders.

When I talk about middle management I am referring to all of us, not a particular group in the enterprise. The “frozen middle” is really a way of talking about the frustration of a leader or manager who is unable to get the other managers “below” him or her in the org chart to change in the way they desire. For the purposes of this article, middle managers are the managers within your organization who you need to be part of your transformation effort.

Perhaps that suggests a different way to frame the problem: we have to understand the motivations of those “below” us in the org chart and find the best way to get them to support transformation. The real problem, from what I have seen, is that leaders often don’t fully engage middle managers in the transformation, thereby leaving them in a compromised position in which they are unable to deliver what they are held accountable for.

The cloud, DevOps, and today’s other best practices for IT delivery can make heroes of everyone. They add so much value to the enterprise that there are superpowers enough to go around. The goal of transformation is to empower everyone across the organization—middle managers included—and make them successful.

Let’s start by looking at our traditional idea of a management hierarchy. It was based on the idea of delegating responsibilities down through an organization that was siloed by function: IT, for example, was divided into development, operations, user support, and security. The goal of each middle manager was to command a sub-organization to deliver the required function, using a budget that was allocated for that purpose. The number of middle managers needed was based on a “span of control”—note the word control—or the number of direct reports a middle manager would be able to oversee. As more line employees were added, more middle managers were necessary.

The new management paradigm is centered around empowered, autonomous, cross-functional teams. The teams, ideally, are organized to accomplish a business objective, rather than to operate a functional silo—that is precisely the reason why they are cross-functional and autonomous. But this raises an interesting question, right? If the teams are empowered and autonomous, then what is the role of managers and of a hierarchy of managers? Do we actually need middle management anymore?

Yes, we do. In fact, today it is middle management that prevents siloing, rather than the instrument that enforces it. Imagine an organization that is simply a collection of independent teams, each with its own objectives. How would the organization then take advantage of the synergies between these teams, the opportunities for cross-team pollination, and the higher-order ideas that arise when the innovations of one team can influence those of another? How can it manage the allocation of enterprise resources and skills across those teams or deal with the conflicts that necessarily arise between teams (resources are scarce, of course)? How else can the teams’ activities be made more productive and efficient by re-distribution of goals and by the construction of shared tools and architectures, or by the elimination of constraints on the teams?

Simply imagine an organization that is only teams and work backward from there. Once you see what is missing, you will have derived the role of middle management.

Middle management, then, is not about enforcing control in a hierarchy of functional responsibilities; it is about gaining the power that the team-oriented approach offers by amplifying the teams’ ideas, creating clarity around goals, removing impediments, and devising and allocating resources to support the teams’ activities. I’ll offer the following list of responsibilities for middle management:

  • Make sure teams understand the overall vision and their goals, and how they can measure success.
  • Amplify the teams’ ideas through coordination with other teams and managers across the organization.
  • Provide each team with its resources: assemble the right people with the right skills, make sure they are trained and coached, allocate financial and other resources, and provide tools.
  • Remove impediments for teams, especially when they involve coordination with other teams or with the company’s bureaucracy.
  • Ensure that all processes are lean; that is, that lead times are short and waste is removed, especially when the process crosses the boundaries of different teams.
  • Use each team’s creativity, innovation, and human skills to best accomplish the goals above.

The role of the middle manager, in other words, is inherently creative. It lies in inspiring teams, creatively applying resources, and using imagination to amplify and make the most of the team’s ideas.

An interesting example of this type of management is found in a very different context in Paul Kennedy’s book Engineers of Victory. Kennedy retells the story of the Allies’ victory in World War II, focusing on the role played by junior officers—that is, middle management! The war was won, he contends, not just through the activities of the troops or the wisdom of the generals—it was rather the creative activities of middle management that unlocked the ability of the Allies when they were in an impossible situation.

According to Kennedy, the only way the Allies could win the war was by solving five problems:

  • How to get convoys safely across the Atlantic.
  • How to win command of the air.
  • How to stop a blitzkrieg.
  • How to seize an enemy-held shore.
  • How to overcome long distances.

While the grand strategy of the leaders was already in place from the Casablanca Conference of 1943, that strategy could not be implemented successfully until these five problems had been solved. Think about problem 4, for example: no one had ever seized an enemy-held shore before, let alone coordinated something as vast as the D-Day landings in Normandy. There were plenty of resources—troops and materiél—but they could not be applied without the coordination and ingenuity of the junior officers who found solutions to those five problems. Over the course of eighteen months, they did exactly that.

Middle managers, in other words, empowered the teams of troops to accomplish their objectives by engineering solutions, removing impediments, and providing the troops with the critical resources they needed. To do so they worked cross-organizationally, devising new techniques with their collaborators and learning from each other’s experiments. They did all this while keeping an eye on the big picture—winning the war by applying the grand strategy set in place by Roosevelt, Churchill, and the combined chiefs of staff—but finding their own distinctive ways to contribute. They were truly modern middle managers.

It seems clear that middle management cannot fulfill this role while being incentivized to run reliable, siloed, dedicated functional areas. If the leaders of an organization want to engage their middle managers in a large-scale transformation, they have to start by redefining the roles those middle managers play, in order to remove this conflict between incentives and desired performance. Middle management, the more skilled and conscientious they are, will continue to deliver what they have always been asked to deliver, even if it is not really what their leaders have in mind.

The melting of the supposedly frozen middle, I will show in my next post, is an output of transformation, not a prerequisite. The middle needs to have a new definition of success (its incentive) and help and support in accomplishing it. It must then find its own creative way toward achieving that success.


A Seat at the Table: IT Leadership in the Age of Agility
The Art of Business Value
War and Peace and IT: Business Leadership, Technology, and Success in the Digital Age

Mark Schwartz

Mark Schwartz

Mark Schwartz is an Enterprise Strategist at Amazon Web Services and the author of The Art of Business Value and A Seat at the Table: IT Leadership in the Age of Agility. Before joining AWS he was the CIO of US Citizenship and Immigration Service (part of the Department of Homeland Security), CIO of Intrax, and CEO of Auctiva. He has an MBA from Wharton, a BS in Computer Science from Yale, and an MA in Philosophy from Yale.