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How middle managers can help most in complex COVID-19 planning

Middle managers often provide a key perspective, but they must keep two things in mind in order to be successful at problem-solving.

How middle managers can help most in complex COVID-19 planning
[Photo: Mihai Surdu/Unsplash]

Lots of organizations, including my own, are trying to plan for the future during the COVID-19 pandemic. This complex and multifaceted process requires a lot of input from many different people. Not surprisingly, there is a tendency to draw help mostly from leaders within the organization.

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There is some evidence, though, that groups made up primarily of leaders often perform worse than groups that have some people from leadership roles and others who do not have those roles. The reason for this difficulty isn’t creativity. Being in a leadership role doesn’t make you less creative. Instead, it is that having too many leaders involved in a process creates conflict—particularly because leaders have a hard time taking on a narrower role within a group.

Why middle managers are key

Complex planning processes often go on for months, as different scenarios are tested, and the decision team gathers information from a variety of experts. Some of that expertise is drawn from the outside, but much of it comes from inside. In particular, people in middle management roles are asked to provide input on specific questions that the leadership team is currently addressing. Middle management can play a critical role in planning, because these individuals often have a view of what frontline employees are doing as well as some understanding of the strategic aims of the organization.

A difficulty with engaging a broad range of leaders from an organization is that a key skill of people who end up on the leadership track is that they are good problem solvers. As I discuss in my book Smart Thinking, one core component of this creative problem-solving ability is unpacking the problem to understand why the components fit together the way they do.

In many contexts, this is a great idea. But in middle management roles, it is likely to take you months to internalize the knowledge that members of the decision team have acquired through their significant efforts. As a result, if you try to wrap your head around the whole problem, you’re likely to retrace the steps of the leadership team. And the basic suggestions you make about the problem are likely to be ones they have considered—perhaps weeks before.

To maximize the help you give to this team in a middle management role, then, there are two things you should do:

Provide a detailed answer

Try to resist the urge to unpack the entire problem. Instead, treat it as a black box. The place where you have been asked to share your expertise fits into a much bigger picture that you may not need to understand completely to contribute. Start by giving a detailed answer to the actual question you have been asked.

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Of course, if you have concerns about particular assumptions, express them as part of the answer you give. Suggest ways that the approach being taken may cause problems, or how the solution you are suggesting might be derailed by factors that may not have been considered. But, don’t wait to start working on the problem you have been asked to solve until you understand the entire problem. It is quite possible that the leadership team is aware of the problems you raise, but have chosen the least evil of a set of suboptimal possibilities. By expressing your concerns, you do provide context for the answer you have provided.

Frame your concerns

After you have addressed the question given to you, you can raise concerns about more general aspects of the planning process. Rather than making suggestions about “better approaches,” frame your ideas as questions. “Why are we doing X rather than Y?”

The value of this framing is that it acknowledges that the leadership team may already have considered your alternative and rejected it for reasons that may not be obvious. It also allows you to raise a possibility that the team may not have considered, which allows them to come back to you and to ask for more information. Ultimately, by respecting the work that others have already done, you put yourself in a position to contribute to the ongoing plan and also to learn more about the process by which it is being developed.

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