Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Moving into middle management – Part 5: finding an effective operational and strategic balance

Posted in job search and career development by Timothy Platt on March 13, 2011

This is my fifth installment in a series on transitioning into middle management with the first four available in my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development as postings 142 through 145. One point I have touched on a number of times is in how appropriate that word “middle” is in this context. For this posting, middle means standing at the mid-point between operations and strategy, where day to day performance is operationally focused, but where job requirements also mean developing a strategic focus and vision.

As a general principle, this is probably a point easily noted and then set aside and forgotten. But the devil, as they say is in the details, and here that can mean identifying and navigating a whole ongoing series of potential conflicts and contradictions. This is because:

• Operations are all about pattern and ongoing momentum, and doing things in a set and standardized way, and
• Strategy becomes important where it means change and breaking out of patterns. Strategy becomes visible where it manifests long term and organization-wide value-creating change. A strategy to simply continue doing the exact same things in the exact same ways, in this sense is not really much of a strategy at all.

The people who report to us as individuals and collectively as organized teams offer pressures to continue performing according to ongoing, familiar processes and procedures. They are known, and so for the most part are the resources needed to complete tasks through them, and so are the sources for most of those resources. Standard and familiar can be seen as risk-reducing and can become a comfort zone. There can be and usually are pressures from above on the table of organization to stay with the tried and true too. But then strategic change and growth enter this picture, and that can mean accommodating dislocations and the as yet unproven potentials of the unknown.

To clarify a possible point of confusion here, operations and operational processes and procedures do involve and even require a significant measure of change and both seasonal and cyclic, and change into the new too. But this tends to be change along a more predictable linear progression. Strategy is where disruptive change and discontinuity comes from and as a point of clarification that is the type of change I refer to here when I write of change and strategy.

Do most middle managers think in these terms? No, of course not, and I add as a collateral point in this context that most middle managers never quite transition into a truly strategy-centric senior management position either. I write this posting and this series as a whole, with a goal of provoking middle managers to think through the issues, changes and challenges of professional growth, where they still have further personal professional growth potential ahead.

Understand the operational processes that you and your colleagues work within as a source of continuity and organizational pattern, and with linearly predictable change at most. But come to understand strategy and the positive potentials inherit in more disruptive change too, and both for new value added and from its capacity to disrupt per se too.

• Middle management is the proving ground for meshing the continuity of operations with the change of strategy.

Success as a middle manager involves mastering a wide range of issues and capabilities, but this is one of the most important of them. And when done effectively this is crucial to preparing yourself for further advancement too.

My next posting in this series is going to look into the issues faced when turning more generally stated strategic goals and objectives into more detailed and specific operational reality.

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