The frozen obstacle that can hold up your transformation

Key takeaways

  • Businesses undergoing transformations can have their change stalled by a ‘frozen middle’.
  • Frozen middles occur when intermediaries refuse to enact strategies from upper leadership.
  • Strategies to remove the frozen middle include adopting a design-led approach, focusing around the customer and clearing communication channels.

There’s an anecdote in management theory that revolves around the running of a mushroom farm. It goes like this: in the case of mushroom management, the CEO keeps their employees in the dark and periodically feeds them (for want of a better word) manure.

I was thinking about that concept in relation to digital transformations. To enact the changes necessary for organisations to remain competitive in a rapidly shifting digital landscape, leadership must be able to open up and – loudly and clearly – communicate a strategic vision to all employees. Unlike the mushroom farm scenario, honesty and enlightenment is key: if your team members don’t understand the change, or the reasons behind it, there’s little chance they’ll buy into it.

Adjusting the cultural mindsets of individual team members is a crucial part of the transformation process for another reason. If executed successfully, it emboldens workers at all levels. It helps ensure rank-and-file employees from the coal face upwards are turned into change agents, observing and even suggesting better ways to perform their frontline tasks.

In this way, throwing open the doors to the mushroom farm and switching on the lights can set the entire company on a course of continual improvement.

That’s the theory, at least. In practice, things aren’t so simple. While the leadership team may adopt a transformation roadmap – one that seeks to encourage front-facing workers to innovate from the bottom up – unforeseen obstacles and bottlenecks can hamper progress.

The frozen middle

One such obstacle is the concept of the frozen middle, which occurs when top-down strategic directives are received by intermediaries but not acted upon. This hesitancy (or downright refusal) obstructs flows of information and can slow down overall transformations, halting a company’s development in favour of preserving patches of the status quo.

(Another name I’ve heard to describe this phenomenon is the ‘slushy zone’, suggesting that nothing ever truly freezes.)

The frozen middle also refers to one or more middle managers who refuse to tinker with the operations or processes they oversee for fear of ceding their small empire. First used to describe the stubborn mid-level bureaucracy of a US automobile manufacturer¹, the phrase can be applied to almost any organisation.

It’s worth noting that the frozen middle doesn’t only occur in middle management. It can happen between any two layers of a hierarchy: the CEO and the company board, a low-level worker and their supervisor, or the C-suite and business unit leaders (a common organisational structure for large Australian companies). All are susceptible to this frozen stopper.

Melting the middle

How can organisations thaw their frozen middles to maximise the chance of transformation success?

One method is to triumph a design-led approach to the transformation, refocusing roles and operations around problem solving in the name of the customer.

This methodology provides a simple and clear rallying cry for every team member in the organisation. It also rebuilds the operating model from the ground up, encouraging individuals to evolve from protective gatekeepers of processes and responsibilities into proactive problem-solvers and innovators.

Another suggestion is to clear the communication channels between the leadership team and the rest of the company, bringing together individuals from across the organisation to execute change agendas.

In the mid-2000s, a vice president at computer manufacturer Hewlett Packard was tasked with overhauling the corporation’s compensation structure for its tens of thousands of sales staff². Working directly with the CEO, the VP formed an investigative team comprised of stakeholders from across HP’s many divisions. This team then uncovered over 1,500 compensation plans at the company, which were subsequently streamlined down to 40.

Beware the culture assassins

It’s highly likely that some individuals or elements will be resistive to such changes. In these cases, it may be necessary to identify where the transformation is stalling, then to simply remove who or what’s responsible for the holdup – from middle managers to old business processes or even the CEO themselves. Following this removal, those at the next level down can be encouraged to step up, given the green light to turn on-the-ground experiences into actionable innovations.

This last approach may seem drastic, but consider the alternative: if an individual or process is suppressing ideas and innovations from the rest of the team, then the effect is one of culture assassination, creating unnecessary frustration, affecting work satisfaction and risking the future prosperity of the organisation.

Transforming the mushroom farm

To achieve meaningful transformation, the goals and incentives devised by the leadership team must cascade throughout the rest of the organisation. If it can’t be done, then surgery may be required to remove the bumps, wherever they can be found. Doing so transmits a very clear message: get on the change agenda or move on.

For companies at any maturity level considering a transformation, they must remain on the lookout for the existence of any frozen middles. Using design-led and customer-centric approaches they should examine their systems, processes and the attitudes of their people, removing obstacles and streamlining operations wherever possible.

These cultural changes and new ways of working should be done alongside – or even before – any implementations of new technologies. After all, it’s no use providing your workers with new gadgets if they’re still toiling away in the dark on the mushroom farm.