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Defrosting the Frozen Middle

Illustration by Jeffrey Phillips


Stuck? Unable to get digital transformation moving? Here’s how. 

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DIGITAL: At a recent digital convention in Sydney, Maile Carnegie, group executive of digital banking at ANZ, brought the house down with a blunt assessment of the scourge known as the frozen middle. She painted a picture of middle management’s stubborn resistance to change and its roots in fear and  uncertainty. The frozen middle can start one level down from the C-suite and one level back from the customer. Carnegie painted a bleak portrait: an office layered with executives and middle managers, bossing other people around while exchanging slide presentations.

The managers were fearful, angry and paralysed. And this paralysis stopped digital transformation in its tracks and kept digital at the edges – in digital marketing or an online channel. 

But before the C-suite and leaders charged with digital transformation throw up their hands, they need to know it’s their job to thaw out the frozen middle.

It’s no easy task as people are affected differently and there can be lots of reasons why someone freezes into passive resistance. Yet a crucial thread unites the frozen middle.

Most are bright, successful people, intellectually aware of the need for change, but different barriers keep their minds closed. So how do you develop strategies to remove the barriers?
There are three main ways: chip away, move them on or light a fire.
Lighting a fire can mean looking at different ways of working such as adopting an Agile model, or changing KPIs and reporting  lines.

It starts with an organisational network analysis, which throws a spotlight on people who can model the right behavior. Influencers can be found at all levels of the organisation and should be given roles to work alongside senior leadership to change the culture. The influencers need to know what they are dealing with, so here are the four main groups that make up the frozen middle.

The Cynic: Cynics have been through lots of change, some of it not well thought through or successful. This group of people could be suffering burnout, have no appetite for change and think the latest program will come and go. While they care deeply about the organisation, they believe the leaders are self-serving and don’t have the interests of the business at heart.

The answer for cynics is to build trust. Senior leaders need to engage with them, explain why the change is necessary, be open about previous failed attempts, point out the shared objectives, including what’s in it for them, and ask the cynics how to work together to drive the transformation. 

The Comfortable Leader: These folk are senior, well positioned and have no appetite to embark on another four-year transformation. But they have their hands on the power levers and often need feedback that their counsel and commitment is valued and required. They should be told they have to go on the journey, but they won’t need to carry the load.

The Twilight Executive: This group is looking at retirement or stepping back and is not motivated to help reinvent and re-energise the organisation. However, they can play a valuable role in helping the next generation of emerging leaders, so try to inspire them to play a leadership role rather than feeling burdened or a lack of understanding or support.

The Self-Saboteur: There are a lot of these people in organisations. They tend to be more junior and can see the potential of the change. In fact they often stand at the watercooler sharing with all and sundry the problems the company faces. What this group lacks is practical answers, emotional intelligence, an understanding of the big picture and complexity. Sometimes people in this group with the right coaching turn into leaders, actively coaching others. But many times they end up sabotaging the transformation and their own careers as they get left on the sidelines. Building their self-awareness through coaching is one answer. Give them responsibility and let them know that if they are prepared to learn and change, they will be supported and rewarded.

Behind this you need to be creating a culture that is ready to try ideas and risk failure. Take Amazon. In his widely-circulated letters to shareholders, CEO Jeff Bezos regularly outlines his approach, and the key is “disagree and commit”. Think about it.

How often have great ideas been killed by the refusal of leaders to green light a project when they are uncomfortable. Or they kill it by stealth, withholding necessary resources or support? Disagree and commit allows leaders to disagree with an idea, yet create an environment where the idea can be tested and explored. A side effect is that it keeps people, who might become the frozen middle, engaged.

Some leaders say the middle isn’t thawing fast enough and they want to look at more radical alternatives. But as a society we can’t get rid of our frozen middle and just pass them on to someone else. We have to get them performing.

The Press is a publication by PwC Australia, aimed at sharing expertise, capturing insights and working together to solve important problems.

This article first appeared in Edition 3 of The Press
By Philip Otley, Partner, PwC Digital Serices.

With Alex Klat-Smith, Partner, PwC's The Difference

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