For the last, at least, 10 years of my consulting life, I have struggled to confirm the thesis, well publicised by Big Consulting, and gladly embraced by top leaders as the truth, that the culprit of slow pace, communications breakdown, and, frankly, most ills of the organization, was that layer of leadership defined in geometrical terms: middle management.
The whodunnit of the problem always conveniently pointed to the middle. The rest of the sandwich seemed OK. Top leaders enlightened and visionary. Troops committed but constrained by those process junkies and infoblockers in the middle. Oh, the Midlands! How bad they were!
So bad that we could get rid of them without anybody even noticing. Which was a perfect justification for the Restructuring Storm that for many years hit western corporate land. Middle management was ‘eliminated’. The fact that The Eliminated took home not a copy of the hard drive (a big obsession of the day) but their own soft drive (corporate memory, relationships, unwritten rules, knowledge) did not seem to bother anybody. The organization became flatter after the diet, the soufflé became pancake, and the Leaners had it.
But the pancake resurrected slowly into a new soufflé, since the empty space of The Midlands was progressively re-occupied by new promotions from The Bottom. The organization always suffers from empty space phobia.
My inability to find many culprits in the geographical middle, even when there was a middle, was mirrored by the realisation that the real bottleneck was, in fact, very close to the CEO, sometimes at the very top of the system. The ruthless cleaning of The Middle seemed to have created an overpopulated top with some organizations now having more Vice-presidents than people on the payroll.
The level of recycling and circular discussions, revolving door ideas and perfect fabric for indecisions does not lie in The Middle but further up in the system. In fact, a real picture of a standard bottle of wine (OK, I’d prefer a good bottle of wine) shows the reality: the neck is at the top. Only some sports bottles seem to have a dysfunctional grabbable neck in the middle. Not my area of expertise.
Like those people obsessed with the gym, who want to die healthy, the organization shoulders and arms are now oversized and the waist is undersized.
Today it is not credible anymore to blame The Middle, whether the reincarnated one or a Flatter Middle, for all the problems. As it happened before, but everybody preferred to ignore, any middle manager reports to a senior and top manager. If there is a problem in the middle, the top is usually responsible. Small detail lost in the restructuring whodunnit translation.
The gatekeepers have moved North. And there are lots of them.
These geographical curiosities are often uncomfortable to accept.