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Digital transformation needs a strong middle

To achieve digital transformation success you need to get your middle management on board. Here’s how. 

Despite the $3.8 trillion of investment in digital transformation expected for this year, “only half of organisational transformations and 40% of technological transformations achieve their goals”.

Writing for Strategy+Business, Carol Stubbings, Darren Homer, and John Francis explain that, when digital transformation falters, the finger of blame often lingers on middle management. But is this really fair? And if it is, what can we do to energise this vital group of leaders?


Middle managers are “people in [the] organisation who are no longer experts in a craft, and who have graduated from doing to managing and basically bossing other people around and shuffling PowerPoints”, according to Maile Carnegie, group executive of digital banking at ANZ in Australia.

But, the authors argue, this is precisely the wrong way to look at middle management.

Not all middle management resembles the cringeworthy David Brent of The Office. While some managers resist change, others embrace it. In fact, in one study of digital transformation at a large telecom company, around 80% of the projects senior management instigated failed, while 80% of those initiated by mid-level managers succeeded.

When middle management succeeds it does so by bridging the divide between technology and people. It’s by providing “emotional skills such as creativity, problem solving, and resilience” that they “incentivize [the] workforce to embrace new ways of working and find ways to redeploy talent into value-creating activities”.

Middle managers are the “engine room of implementation”.


  • Middle managers know their way around informal networks. “They know more people and are closer to them, and are more influential, than senior managers can ever hope to be.”
  • They can read the mood and emotional needs of workers, giving them a vital role to play in implementing change.
  • Middle managers are change managers. They make sure transformation progresses without tipping into confusion and chaos.

When one in three jobs is likely to disappear or change out of recognition over the next ten years, you need humans with the skills to help a sometimes reluctant workforce through a period of unprecedented change.

And while there are middle managers who do their best to frustrate change, finding and empowering motivated mid-level players is key to successful change management.

Three quarters of CEOs say they struggle to find middle-tier managers with the motivation and ambition to drive change. But that’s not the fault of middle managers, the authors say: “If an organisation is not working as it should, ultimately the responsibility lies with its leadership.” Often it’s senior management who are at fault for failing to “create a clear narrative about the future of their workforce and automation”.


If digital transformation is stagnating at your organisation, here’s how to empower your middle management team to drive change.

1) Identify problems. How do you know whether the source of the slowdown is human or technological? You need to set KPIs and monitor them:

“Without a comprehensive diagnosis to find out whether it’s a technology issue or a people issue that is causing concern or stagnation, it won’t be possible to address behaviors needed to bring change.”

2) Find and activate change-makers. Does stagnation originate at the middle or senior management level? A study of Bayer CropScience’s (BCS) transformation process found “a lack of leadership from the top, unrealistic timelines, and a lack of resources and change management skills in their teams”.

The solution? An action plan which included training 100 middle managers to enhance their capabilities as “change agents”.

How to identify the right managers for this task?

  • Choose people who already talk to senior managers.
  • Look for resilient people who overcome resistance to change in their teams.
  • Identify managers who understand the strategy.
  • Empower those who demonstrate enthusiasm for acquiring new skills.

Empower managers who, because of their positive reputations among staff, are able to work with informal leaders within their teams – the people who naturally “self select” as change makers – because these are the players who get things done on the ground.

3) Offer the right training. Respect the fact that managers have day jobs to do by making sure training programmes don’t end up overburdening them. Avoid over-emphasising technical skills because although managers need a certain level of know-how in order to understand the digital transformation they’re driving, agility is the most important quality in a middle manager. Focus on coaching leadership, problem-solving, and operational skills.

4) Deliver a clear message. Making the case for change hinges on making an effective emotional argument rather than a data-driven one. When senior leaders at one company suffering from “high customer turnover and complaints” presented a 50-page dossier on the need for change, nothing happened. When they invited middle managers into the customer call centre to hear the kind of calls they were recording, “the managers saw the pressing need for change”.

5) Keep emphasising the objective. The success of the UK’s Sage group’s transformation from subscription-based software-licensing service to cloud-based service depended on achieving higher customer renewal rates. Middle management had to maximise customer engagement.

To drive home the message, Sage implemented a digital performance-monitoring tool. Every day, managers gathered to discuss “individual performance metrics”. The purpose of these “huddles” was to “see clearly whether they were on track to deliver the objectives of the customer programme, share their milestones, and ask for help or guidance”.

Customer engagement was the key metric; 16 weeks of working this way led to a 70% increase in the number of customer interactions and a 2% increase in renewals.

Investing in digital transformation can help you improve efficiency and cut costs, but reaping its true rewards relies on harnessing the talents of people with very human skills to offer – creative, resilient, and skillful middle managers.

Source Article: Thawing The Frozen Middle
Author(s): Carol Stubbings, Darren Homer, and John Francis
Publisher: Strategy+Business