I consult, write, and speak on running better technology businesses (tech firms and IT captives) and the things that make it possible: good governance behaviors (activist investing in IT), what matters most (results, not effort), how we organize (restructure from the technologically abstract to the business concrete), how we execute and manage (replacing industrial with professional), how we plan (debunking the myth of control), and how we pay the bills (capital-intensive financing and budgeting in an agile world). I am increasingly interested in robustness over optimization.

I work for ThoughtWorks, the global leader in software delivery and consulting.

Monday, July 31, 2023


Organizational change, whether digital transformation or simple process improvement, spawns resistance; this is a natural human reaction. Middle managers are the agents of change, the people through whom change is operationalized. The larger the organization, the larger the ranks of middle management. It has become commonplace among management consultants to target middle management as the cradle of resistance to change. The popular term is “the frozen middle”.

There is no single definition of what a frozen middle is, and in fact there is quite a lot of variation among those definitions. Depending on the source, the frozen middle is:

  • an entrenched bureaucracy of post-technical people with no marketable skills who only engage in bossing, negotiating, and manipulating organizational politics - change is impossible with the middle managers in situ today
  • an incentives and / or skills deficiency among middle managers - middle managers can be effective change agents, but their management techniques are out of date and their compensation and performance targets are out of alignment with transformation goals
  • a corporate culture problem - it’s safer for middle managers to do nothing than to take risks, so working groups of middle managers respond to change with “why this can’t be done” rather than “how we can do this”
  • not a middle management problem at all, but a leadership problem: poor communication, unrealistic timelines, thin plans - any resistance to change is a direct result of executive action, not middle management

The frozen middle is one of these, or several of these, or just to cover all the bases, a little bit of each. Of course, in any given enterprise they’re all true to one extent or another.

Plenty of people have spent plenty of photons on this subject, specifically articulating various techniques for (how clever) “thawing” the frozen middle. Suggestions like “upskilling”, “empowerment”, “champion influencers of change”, “communicate constantly”, and “align incentives” are all great, if more than a little bit naive. Their collective shortcoming is that they deal with the frozen middle as a problem of the mechanics of change. They ignore the organizational dynamics that create resistance to change among middle management in the first place.

Sometimes resistance is a top-down social phenomenon. Consider what happens when an executive management team is grafted onto an organization. That transplanted executive team has an agenda to change, to modernize, to shake up a sleepy business and make it into an industry leader. It isn’t difficult to see this creates tensions between newcomers and long-timers, who see one another as interlopers and underperformers. Nor is it difficult to see how this quickly spirals out of control: executive management that is out of touch with ground truths; middle management that fights the wrong battles. No amount of “upskilling” and “communication” with a side order of “empowerment” is going to fix a dystopian social dynamic like this.

One thing that is interesting is that the advice of the management consultant is to align middle management’s performance metrics and compensation with achievement of the to-be state goals. What the consultants never draw attention to is executive management receiving outsized compensation for as-is state performance; compensation isn’t deferred until the to-be state goals are demonstrably realized. Plenty of management consultants admonish executives for not “leading by example”; I’ve yet to read any member of the chattering classes admonish executive to be “compensated by example”.

There are also bottom-up organizational dynamics at work. “Change fatigue” - apathy resulting from a constant barrage of corporate change initiatives - is treated as a problem created by management that management can solve through listening, engagement, patience and adjustments to plans. “Change skepticism” - doubts expressed by the rank-and-file - is treated as an attitude problem among the rank-and-file that is best dealt with by management through co-opting or crowding out the space for it. That is unfortunate, because it ignores the fact that change skepticism is a practical response: the long timers have seen the change programs come and seen the change programs go. The latest change program is just another that, if history is any guide, isn’t going be any different than the last. Or the dozen that came and went before the last.

The problematic bottom up dynamic to be concerned with isn’t skepticism, but passivity. The leader stands in front of a town hall and announces a program of change. Perhaps 25% will say, this is the best thing we’ve ever done. Perhaps another 25% will say, this is the worst thing we’ve ever done. The rest - 50% plus - will ask, “how can I not do this and still get paid?” The skeptic takes the time and trouble to voice their doubts; management can meet them somewhere specific. It is the passengers - the ones who don’t speak up - who represent the threat to change. The management consultants don’t have a lot to say on this subject either, perhaps because there is no clever platitude to cure the apathy that forms what amounts to a frozen foundation.

Is middle management a source of friction in organizational change? Yes, of course it can be. But before addressing that friction as a mechanical problem, think first about the social dynamics that create it. Start with those.