How to unlock the “frozen middle” to enable organisational agility

I typically hear this kind of question from a number of agile coaches and those supporting “agile transformation” activities. The reality is that most agile coaches are not equipped to do this kind of work as they’re used to dealing with team level problems. The so called “frozen middle” are the layers of management – so in order to unlock them, we’re going to have to start to talk about how to “manage” teams and organisations in an agile way.

First of all, let’s set some context. This approach is really focusing on organisations that focus on “knowledge work”. That is, they’re using what I refer to as the “neck-top computer” to solve problems, create products and provide services for their customers. This is human centric and although we may use computers & technology to solve the problems, the key is the people creating those solutions. Usually, this is in the form of intellectual property and involves the creation or modification of various forms of intellectual property. For those in other industries that predominantly involves the physical aspects, such as construction or manufacturing, this does not necessarily apply to that kind of work (but it may apply to those aspects of the business that involve knowledge work – eg finance, legal, HR etc).

The management layer, particularly in medium to large organisations, has been created and evolved usually over many years or decades. Many of the processes and practices were put in place at some point in time for good reasons that may still be valid. First of all, we need to understand the context and the problems that you’re trying to solve – but we need to put this in the perspective of those in this management layer. How do they set and meet expectations? What are they being measured on? What management levers to they have to pull? Many agile transformations start with reorganising the structure of the organisation, however this is usually counter productive because you’re not necessarily dealing with the underlying problems that created the “frozen” aspect. Indeed, if you do a large reorganisation, you’re competitors are probably smiling thinking “they’re going to be busy distracting themselves for the next 6-12 months, we can take advantage of this”. If you’re undergoing this kind of change right now, come back to this in 12 months or so because I’m guessing you’ll still be facing these issues.

If you start to talk to the management layer about their specific problems and start to address them, you’ll both gain credibility and also have some practical benefits from the changes. But you’re probably thinking “how do I do that?”. This is the first step of any kanban implementation – understanding the points of dissatisfaction and addressing them. This is how to start thawing out the frozen middle. Often times there are problems like:

  • I can’t see / don’t understand what’s going on
  • I’m not sure of the team / group’s capacity
  • Are we predictable in our delivery?
  • Can I make reliable commitments?
  • There’s an existing policy / rule we have to follow

The next thing you need to know as a coach / transformation agent is that there are a lot of management practices that are firmly rooted in the 19th & 20th century. They’re not really designed for 21st century knowledge work. The key to this is that you need to be able to connect with managers of this understanding an alternative way to manage – the way they can “manage flow”. Many of the techniques are quite different and when you use this lens you’ll note that a number of the older practices are part of the reason for the existing problem and why the middle has become “frozen”. Through this, you’ll start to see where the problems / bottlenecks / blockers are to your organisations delivery capability. Seeing and improving this will lead to greater organisational agility. We cover this off in our Kanban System Design and Kanban Systems Improvement courses in more detail.

But why should the manager’s listen to you with this new management style? You need to understand what their motivations are – and it will be different for different managers. Understanding their motivations and giving being able to answer “What’s in it for me” for each of them is key to continuing to thaw out that permafrost. You can’t change everything overnight, but you can start to move them to a greater level of maturity more gradually. You just need to understand the change levers that are at your disposal. The reality is that it’s taken years / decades to create the existing system of work – you’re not going to be able to change it overnight, but it can start to evolve. We cover off these topics in the Kanban Maturity Model course, where you can learn how to help managers enable greater flow and maturity through their organisation.

For any agile coaches out there, if you’re coming across a “frozen middle” problem, please consider how agile management should really work. If you’re going to go into this space you really should be equipped with the at least the Kanban Management Professional if not the Kanban Coaching Professional capability to help you navigate those frozen seas. For those of you who wish to learn more about how Kanban can help you unlock the frozen middle, please sign up to our newsletter.