Making It Happen from the Middle

Making It Happen from the Middle

Guest writer Sara Hanks talks about how to continue to make changes without a top-down ability in “Making It Happen from the Middle.”

For nearly a decade, the digital transformation projects, and teams that I led were funded from corporate. Although there were aggressive cost-out targets that came along with the program budget, it was clear that the initiatives were selected at the top of the organization and disseminated down. When the team encountered resistance to change, an escalation a couple layers up settled the dispute quickly. The blunt object from the top paved paths that would otherwise be a challenge.

In February 2019, our division was sold to another company. Their IT strategy was not the result of a CEO initiative and the concept of functional teams supporting IT projects was foreign. The program funding that was allocated to the digital transformation was distributed to the functions and my team was mostly disbanded. What remained was a small team of project managers tasked with leading continuous improvement efforts. The top-down ability to drive change disappeared and we had to innovate and influence others to accomplish our work. It’s been nearly 3 years and I can say that change is still possible, but it looks different.

If you find yourself in a similar job scenario where you need to improve the business without much direction, or you are in middle management and seek to make things better, these tips can help.

Ask Questions to Find Problems

Chances are that there is no shortage of issues within a business. If you don’t have a specific problem in mind, then seek to find one though interviews with your teams or your co-workers. Ask about what keeps them up at night, or what do they find the most frustrating. You may need to dig deep using a 5-why approach. In this approach, you ask why several times until you get to the root of an issue that can be solved. When you get to a solvable problem, ask what they have done to fix the problem previously. This will give you a sense that the problem is worth solving, and what has been tried in the past.

Break Projects into Pieces

In project management, the work is broken down into work breakdown structures or WBS. The WBS defines the overall scope of the project and breaks down the work to plan the schedule, resources, and budget. In a scenario where the project is not tops-down, or the project sponsor is not defined, you can think about splitting the project into minimal viable projects. For example, if there is a project to improve the ergonomics in the office, rather than focus on the entire setup, select one element to focus on. Finding funding to provide ergonomically friendly keyboards is easier because of the lower cost and effort. Once the keyboard project is finished, propose adjustable chairs, or monitor stands. Little by little, the incremental efforts add up until eventually enough has been funded that the standing desks are more agreeable.

Look for Low Cost, Low Code IT Solutions

Recently, I met another business transformation / continuous improvement leader from a similar sized company. He was in the same scenario with little direction and low budget. By working with the organization to find problems to solve, he leveraged the Microsoft Power Apps suite to create apps himself to solve the problems. There are several options for low code/no code software development. IT experience is not required and there are plenty of training videos on YouTube.

Be Patient

Chances are that if you have the ambition to drive change from the middle, you are results oriented. I personally struggle with patience and constantly seek instant gratification. It’s important to level-set your expectations from the beginning that things take longer when driven from the middle. If work is out of your control, move onto something else while you wait. For example, I used a change request process to implement some changes in IT. The project was put into the queue and wasn’t executed for 7 months. My team moved onto other projects while we waited. Eventually, the IT team caught up and we had solved 2 different problems in the meantime. Be patient and keep going.

Think Like a Marketer

I didn’t understand the power of connecting with my audience, aka my leaders until it was too late. My passion is infectious, and I mistook energy for buy-in. When I presented machine learning results and interactive diagnostic tools, my leaders appreciated the passion, but didn’t understand what I was saying. They didn’t know what to do about it either and couldn’t help me clear roadblocks. It is extremely important to spend time understanding your stakeholders and tailoring your message according to their style. The manager who didn’t care for my data analytic detail, was more interested in who I was working with and what were the results. I could have saved us both time by cutting to the chase and letting him know what he wanted to hear, or what he needed to hear to willingly help.

Over the years, I’ve seen many people fit the grumpy co-worker mold. Always mumbling under their breath or complaining about things continuing to be a pain. Things don’t need to stay the status quo. I have had several surprising successes on projects this year, including $2.5M in funding, because of the tips described above. Make incremental, intentional, small changes and eventually you won’t believe how far things have come.

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