• Ujwal Arkalgud

Middle Management Thinking: An Introduction

Updated: Dec 24, 2018

I was traveling to meet with one of our clients recently and, as I sat there in the back seat, I couldn’t help but notice an interesting parallel to the world of research and innovation.

You see, there were a bunch of cars driving in the middle lane. And while our driver was adhering to the speed limit, following all the rules of the road, and staying inside the lines, it still felt like these cars in the middle lane were standing still.

The reason was simple — All the other cars were passing them on both the left and the right. Much like how many innovation and insight teams are being overtaken by smaller, and more disruptive offerings in their business category.

Which begged a question? In a world where we all understand the need to give our business a competitive edge, to anticipate consumer needs before they recognize them themselves, why is it that so many larger corporations remain stuck and stagnant in the middle lane while the competition is finding a way to weave through traffic, bend the rules, and get to the desired destination faster?

Then it dawned on me. “Middle Of the Road thinking” is an analogy for Middle Management Thinking.

That is what I want to explore in this series of articles on the future of insight and innovation. But first…

A little history:

I run a 3.5-year-old company that is breaking new ground in the field of big data and social sciences. Today, we work with numerous fortune 500 companies, and our research drives important decisions around innovation, product development, and marketing.

It would be fair for me to say that we’ve built quite a reputation for ourselves in a short period of time. Despite doing so, however, the process of acquiring a new client still remains just as complex, and in many ways, outside our control.

Here’s what our typical sales process looks like. We initially get connected to an executive at a company. The moment they hear about what we do, they get really excited and talk about the many ways in which our business could add value to theirs. Sounds perfect, right? The reality is far from it.

Credit: Ryan McGuire

Stuck in the middle with you.

Typically, after an executive has seen value in what we do, we get handed down the chain of command to middle management. This is usually the job function that hires us and deals with our team on a regular basis. Makes logical sense.

In the early days, our bright-eyed minds hadn’t realized just how troublesome this process of getting handed down to middle management would end up being.

This is because we were yet to gain critical insight into the functioning of most middle management in large and mid-sized companies.

Eight out of ten middle managers we meet hesitate to work with us for one of the following reasons-

  • Our business model doesn’t match the typical way in which they are used to conducting research. We sell SaaS licenses and conduct big data ethnographic research in 3 days. They are used to buying on a project basis and waiting months for static analyses to be completed.

  • Our research process is iterative. That is, it allows our clients to explore and build on their analysis as new discoveries are made. Which means surprises are seldom slated for the “next phase”. This requires agility in thinking and a new frame of mind in the way insights can be gathered. It’s different. Which is the problem?

  • Our capabilities require clients to not only educate themselves on the emerging field of big data + social science but also requires them to educate their colleagues. This yet again serves as a barrier to purchase.

We experience one or all of these reasons so often that we coined a term internally to refer to such situations. We call it Middle Management Thinking (MMT).

The problem with MMT is that you get stuck in the pack. And the competition is overtaking you, left and right.

MMT says I don’t want to change a thing because I don’t see the hard pressing need to. Things are fine the way they are. Slow and steady may not win the race, but it’s easier.

MMT promotes lethargic and mediocre work and keeps old methods and companies perpetually in business. It also drives lackluster results because everyone ends up working with the same insights, and implementing the same strategies year over year.

More importantly, it also allows for the creation of red tape and paperwork that further prevents any chance of innovation- it allows procurement and legal departments to create complicated compliance requirements, legal processes, and project bidding/allotment methods. All of which further push away innovative companies and keep the old guards in business.

From time to time we lose opportunities because we didn’t do a good enough job convincing the prospect of our value, or simply because what we do isn’t a fit for what the client’s looking for. That’s absolutely fine. We are at peace with such situations because that happens in business. What we aren’t at peace with, is being rejected for middle management thinking.

Because here is the problem.

If we go back to our traffic analogy, the more cars that stay in the middle lane the more congestion grows. Middle Management Thinking slows everyone down.

So, we’ve expanded our mission as a company. It’s naive to think that we’re going to create a new standard for understanding the consumer without also creating the pathway for this new standard to be adopted. Over the next few weeks, we’ll share more detail on the different ways in which MMT appears in research conversations. Through the process, we’ll identify opportunities for change, that we believe anyone in middle management can access to affect change from within.

Finally, the goal of this series is not to judge individuals or assume everyone in a middle-management role fits this mold. It is instead, a challenge to think about how we approach innovation and leverage research to get to the critical insights we need to drive growth in our businesses.

We know not everyone will want to take this path. But the goal is to inspire more to look for new lanes that will take you and your companies where they need to go.

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