The middle management is not the "paralysis layer"​ but the "power layer"​ or how to prepare self-organized changes

Specifically — how do you prepare a self-organized change?

... I apologize in advance — that what comes now is not agile hype - rather classic! How we humans decide to do something and to change it has long been a part of us - nothing new - since ancient times always the same pattern. And the actual preparation of a self-organized change is simply a descision! And deciding follows the old ancient flow:

  1. The why must be clear — I must know which problem I want to solve, or which paradise is waiting for me. No motive, no change - so simple.
  2. And in all systems, there are "decision makers" - classic bosses, managing directors and board members or the new world circles, committees and democracy. From those you need a "yes ok interesting - take a closer look!” - so simple.
  3. Then comes a surprising step - see below!
  4. And here comes something interesting - see also below!
  5. After that, you probably must become more concrete - you have to make a plan - also very classical. A plan is important, so that everyone knows what to do - and to be self-organized is something to do. Plans are not bad - just because they are constantly changing. That´s normal - you can change the plan and you can also change it iterative (agile) - just running without a plan is fatal, because then you don't see that you are off track.
  6. So, everything is prepared - now you can start with a bang! The bigger the better.
  7. And from here on the self-organization already works - but attention, self-organized changes are intensive, fast and disciplined - some say exhausting but valuable and sustainable.

But what is it with point 3 and 4 - the surprising and interesting parts?

Step 3 and the central question "Who is driving the change?"

The decision makers? Rather, not - they know that something must change, but they are to bussy to make a difference. Or in the new working models, the decision-makers are even maybe a committee, which becomes operative again immediately after the decision has been made - so no time either. Decision-makers must stand behind those decisions - but they do not necessarily have the time to drive a change. That would massively overburden them.

The employees? Yes - Change is the change in behavior of people. Well, with a self-organized change you ideally don't have to change your behavior much - it's more activating the existing better ones. The first step, to activate better behaviour, is always to adjust the Work-in-Process (WIP) correctly. In an way that nobody is overburdened or under burdened anymore. The employee doesn't have to do anything - the WIP is only being adjusted. And then the second step is to establish the meaningful signal - yes, you must do that. As for the employees, the good hidden behavior is then spontaneously "activated" - no big deal either. In a good self-organized change, therefore, nobody really has to learn big new behaviors - they are already there. They are only brought to the surface! So, the employees don't have to drive the change at all. If you listen carefully, the employees have always said what the problem is and how to solve it anyway ;-) You don't have to kick on open doors. They change - but do not have to drive the change.

The middle managers remain - the formerly mentioned "paralysis layer" or now the "power layer!

The middle management also exists in the newer forms of work organizations. The middle managers are those who maintain the communication between the teams - up and down - to the right and left. They are the ones who develop employees - see potentials and promote them. Above all, it is those who ensure that when overarching problems arise, they are solved.

The middle management are also those who, despite all the circumstances/problem/WIP, keep the shop running! They are very loyal to the company and are the ones who get up every morning to provide their energy so that something can still come out!

Middle Management - Wow! No "paralyzed layer" but "power layer!"

Yes, but why are the middle managers often against change? You have to empathize with the situation. If I am a manager and try to keep the store running every day - loyally invest all my energy and then a consultant / boss / colleague comes along from "outside" who tells me what to do better! I already do everything what is necessary. I don´t care about him - I already have enough to do! Go away!

The middle management is therefore either the curse or the blessing at the change - in any case it is the key.

The decisive factor is one's own attitude! With the attitude "middle management is loyal, brings up a lot of energy and tries to keep the shop running" you have the chance to think something new - to choose a different approach.

Instead of Buy-In do better a Work-In: You just have to ask the middle management!

What is not possible - is to turn over a method/concept on them. This requires a lot of "bribery" for a buy-in. The other possibility is to ask! But important from the point of view of those who keep the shop running and don't need anymore "trouble".

So, do ask - but don't ask about the solution building blocks that have been tried several times and that are filled with frustration. But vice versa "Why is the new approach XYZ just not working? Exactly then you get the obstacles that the loyal, energy-driven middle management has already tried to remove - x times but has failed again and again! These are the key elements for change.

And behind each of these obstacles (stumbling blocks) - lies a part of the solution. You only have to think about what would really be necessary to remove this stumbling block. And these considerations have been made x times - everyone already knows the solution building blocks. It's unimaginable, but after 1-2 hours often everything that has to be done is already on the table. These stumbling blocks now become the building blocks for the bridge to the new world.

Example "Change towards an agile project team".

Step #1: find out the obstacles on the way to perfect world! Possible answers are e.g. We just have way too much running at the same time! We don't even know what to do! There are too many clients! The order of the things to do is unclear! Everyone muddles along - there are always coordination problems!

Step #2: transform the obstacles into solutions! Obstacles (see above) become solutions e.g. You have to reduce the things that run parallel to a minimum, so that it fits to the team size! You just have to write down what to do - make a list! There has to be someone who balances the needs of all clients and puts the tasks in order! We coordinate ourselves regularly (very often/daily), so that the work flows optimally!

Maybee you regognized it! What we have now are the solution modules for an agile project team - it's so quick and you don't even need a coach or consultant. Everything was already here! What is still missing is the order.

Focus - Sequence - Self-organization

The problem: everything cannot be tackled at the same time! When the hut burns, when you have to put out the fire and are already fighting to keep the shop going, then you have the highest need for doing "one after the other". So, you have to focus, prioritize - put the many steps in the right order. But what is the right order?

As described in the last article (s. link at the end), you only have to do two things to activate a jumpy order transition with self-organization:

#1 Set the Work-in-Process correctly and #2 establish a signal/feedback and make sure that everyone follows it.

So, you just have to put the whole solution steps in a sequence that first the work-in-process fits again and secondly the signal is generated and used to give order to the whole thing. Everything else is just preparation and post-processing. You could say this is the universal plan for self-organized changes:

  1. Preparation for stetting the correct WIP
  2. Set the correct WIP
  3. Set WIP Post processing - learn to live with it
  4. Preparation of the signal/feedback
  5.  Activate signal/feedback
  6.  Post processing signal/feedback - learn to live with it

Now you only have to assign the solution steps correctly and the procedure plan for the change is ready.

Attention: we are dealing here with complex systems. There is no "universal" plan - thinking is always helpful - but a model like this helps.

Example "Change towards an agile project team".

Step 3: Assign the solution steps to the six phases of self-organization! With the building blocks from step 2, this could look like this:

1. preparation to set the WIP: Build a backlog * Search for product owner * Put stories in order * Cut big stories into small pieces * Estimate complexity of stories somehow.

2. set the WIP: Plan "the next sprint" - the team agrees on the number of stories they think they can handle in the next iteration.

3. deal with the effects to set the WIP: Make transparent what stories are planned roughly for the next iteration * Inform Product Owner what to expect in the next iteration.

4. preparation of the signal/feedback: Sketch burn-down chart * Add the due-date/end of iteration * Enter the number of days to go * Show the initial size of the backlog * Draw the ideal line of burn-down * Plan/define the stand-up.

5. activate the signal/feedback: Determine daily how much residual size of the backlog is still present * Find creative ideas in the team what should happen if the burn-down is smaller than necessary.

6. post-processing signal/feedback: Follow-up of the measures to stabilize the burn-down * Regularly reflect whether the signal makes sense and triggers actions (retrospective)

Ok that was now of course greatly simplified - but honestly it is not much more! If you know the principles behind self-organization, then you can very quickly come up with any change plan.

And what happens next?

Did you see the difference? The steps are designed in such a way that almost nothing is imposed from the outside! All building blocks come from practice as experienced by middle management (or even the team itself s. example). The only thing that comes from the outside is the "generic plan - the proven sequence" to successfully design a self-organized change.

And because all content comes from the inside - from the middle management or team - exactly from those who drive the change!

Then there is also the energy - to drive the change.

Something is still missing - the closing of ranks!

What is still missing is getting the decision makers back on board ;-) This is the interesting point 4 in the list.

At the very beginning, the decision-makers already said that they wanted to do the change (that was easy). They have given the middle management the task of checking whether it makes sense and, if so, how (the action plan) to work out. Now the middle management has worked out the action plan and it makes sense for them.

What remains is the closing of ranks - the middle management tells the top management how to do it and gets the final go! And they will get that - because it was already there! All you must do is look yourself in the eye again and make sure everyone is there! Short check that nobody is standing on the beach anymore and is missing in the boat!

The rest is self-organization

For this change to go well, you only have to do two things - you already know it - it's always the same:

#1 Setting the work-in process correctly and #2 establishing the signal/feedback and making sure everyone follows it.

Nothing easier than that!

What this looks like - that's what I show in a speach on the PMI-Impact Summit


Links to other parts of the series:

"Self-organization - why managers should know more about it - a short introduction" ... I haven't even seen it yet - so read it quickly

"Middle management is not the 'paralysis layer' but the 'power layer!" ... or how to prepare self-organized changes" ... you just read this article :-) but you can send it to friends or even repost it

"Self-organized change for an agile project organization - a real practical example" ... is currently in progress of translation - in the meantime just can watch this speach on the virtual PMI-Impact Summit ont he 2019-09-25 - it's FREE)


  • Details for Deep Digger "Management 4.0: Handbook for Agile Practices" - Basic articles on self-organization and how to implement it >>>