Thawing the resistance to digital transformation

Key takeaways

  • The frozen middle – the propensity for large organisations to develop slow-moving, under-motivated layers that block change – is back in the limelight.
  • A frozen middle isn’t malevolent, nor is it a single entity. Many different individual mindsets and behaviours comprise the bulk of it.
  • One strategy for diagnosing individuals caught in frozen middles is to use the three lenses: behaviour, emotion and logic.

At a recent innovation convention in Sydney, Group Executive of Digital Banking at ANZ, Maile Carnegie brought the house down with a raucously blunt teardown of the scourge of frozen middles afflicting large organisations¹.

Among her insights on the phenomenon were acknowledgement of its stubborn resistance to meaningful change (new technologies, strategies, etc), and its roots in fear and uncertainty. Her vivid portrait of a frozen middle-stricken workplace was bleak: an office layered with mostly unskilled middle managers, bossing other people around while exchanging slide presentations.

Fear and the frozen middle

Although we approach organisational problems through our different perspectives as leaders within PwC’s Digital Services and The Difference, Alex and I agree that the frozen middle, which our colleague Nick Spooner has written about before, is primarily driven by fear. Fear of change, fear of failure, and fear of the unknown.

As we all know, fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to the dark side! Or, in this case, paralysis and permafrost.

Yet like a real-life iceberg, there’s more to the frozen middle than what appears on the surface. It’s not a homogeneous whole; it affects its individual participants differently. We can go a step beyond Maile’s fear factor, and suggest frozen middles also form due to an absence of trust – both employees’ trust in their organisation and their individual role within it.

With these complexities in mind, how can we deconstruct the frozen middle, characterise the individuals affected by it, and then formulate strategies to defrost it?

Articulating archetypes

The first step in articulating a frozen middle is to recognise that the whole is different from its parts. There could be many reasons why an individual might be driven to inaction:

  • They could be experiencing burnout and have neither the appetite or energy for change.
  • They’ve become cynical to previous attempts at transformational change, and believe this latest attempt will come and go.
  • They may be an executive in the twilight of their career and thus not inspired to help reinvent the organisation, instead preferring to glide smoothly to retirement.
  • They could be champing at the bit to get stuck in, but external forces – peer pressure, lack of trust that the organisation will provide support or embrace the new ‘fail fast’ paradigm, etc – keeps their feet simultaneously on the accelerator and brake.

These are all examples of potential archetypes in a frozen organisation. A crucial thread unites them: most are intellectually aware of the need for a change, but a series of different barriers nevertheless keep their hands tied and minds closed.

Emotions, politics and logic: Looking through the lenses

To expose these barriers and develop strategies for unblocking them, a useful paradigm is what we call the three lenses: the logical lens, the political lens and the emotional lens.

Using these approaches, leaders will be able to identify different characteristics within their organisation and understand what combination of emotional, political and logical levers are triggering malaise.

Furthermore, these lenses can provide a useful toolkit for leaders to better understand how to engage with those individuals and meet them on common ground.

Taking action

What does it look like when these frozen individuals are empowered to embrace change using the three lenses? Let’s return to two of the previous archetypes:

  • For the executive cruising to retirement – their experience can be retained as counsel to help the next generation of emerging leaders. However, care should be taken to ensure they’re not made to feel burdened or pulling the wagon alone.
  • For the accelerate-and-brake-peddlers – awareness of their contradictory situation is acknowledged, followed by assistance in helping them challenge these constraints about themselves (or the system around them), unblocking their immunity and helping them forward.

The agile advantage

Of course, getting people to adopt new behaviours within the same organisational constructs they’ve always worked in is extremely hard. To truly remove the friction of the frozen middle, an organisation’s structure, governance, KPIs and behavioural norms will also need an overhaul. Not to mention looking at customer segments, channels, products and the like.

This holistic approach to digital transformation allows a business to move from ‘digital’ being something that happens at the edges (e.g. in digital marketing, or through an online channel) into something that permeates and re-energizes all parts of the business.

It’s an order of magnitude more challenging than adding in a single digital aspect to a business, but there’s an overarching need for organisations to embrace the potential. As GE’s Jack Welch noted in 2000, “When the rate of change inside an institution becomes slower than the rate of change outside, the end is in sight”².

Driving up the velocity of decision making and execution is where newer methods of delivery, such as scaled agile for the enterprise (SAfE), become useful. SAfE empowers workers, democratises an organisation, and flattens the structure. Individuals don’t ‘report up’ to a superior, rather, they present their work at showcases.

Under agile, everyone – no matter their archetype – has a role to play and the means to pull together, achieving outcomes that are often faster, cheaper and better than traditional industrial or top-down structures.

Applying the antifreeze

For an example of an organisation that has consistently resisted a frozen middle, look no further than Amazon. In a recent widely-circulated letter to shareholders³, CEO Jeff Bezos outlined his Day 1 strategy: consistent customer-centricity, quick decision making, and rapid adaptation to external forces. For Bezos, Day 2 is “stasis”, “irrelevance” and an “excruciating, painful decline”.

A core tenet of Bezos’ approach is the powerful notion of “disagree and commit”. How many times have we seen potentially great ideas killed by attrition, by the refusal of leaders to OK a project they’re uncomfortable with, or their indirect sabotage of the project by withholding necessary resources or support?

Disagree and commit allows leaders to respectfully disagree with an idea, yet create an environment where the idea can be explored to its full potential. A side effect is that it keeps people (who might otherwise become the frozen middle) engaged. Anyone can share an opinion, drive an idea, fight for it with passion and evidence, without believing that they’re voiceless or will be punished for rocking the boat.

It stands to reason that many Day 2 organisations are rife with frozen middles. Perhaps ‘Day 2’ and ‘frozen middle’ are one and the same. But the other key takeaway is that Bezos’s letter shows it’s possible to be a large company with a nimble, unfrozen workforce. The iceberg can be avoided. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.

Towards an unfrozen future

The frozen middle is common, but it’s not homogenous, it can’t be tackled with a single approach or strategy, applied en masse to a large organisation. Nor is it a malevolent malaise – a frozen middle can be made up of extremely intelligent, accomplished people. Rather, it’s a combination of many interlocking parts, internal and external forces and systems.

Unsticking the frozen middle requires structural, procedural, cultural and behavioural changes, beginning at the individual level. Company leaders have to meet their people where they reside – from motivated true believers to those languishing within an outdated paradigm – and move together from the frozen place to the future.

In tackling the frozen middle in this manner, leaders will be able to steer their organisation through a successful digital transformation, coming out healthier at the other end.