Middling Middle Managers

It’s often difficult to find employees who will champion the company’s vision and products as once did its founders.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Tony Bishop, CEO of Cambridge, UK-based e-Go, a start-up that has dedicated its first five years of existence to the design and development of an ultra-light aircraft that is much too close in weight to yours truly. For more on the e-Go story, jump to Flying High. For more on the waning remains of this editor’s self-esteem, jump to Facebook or steal my man journal.

Before he was winning contests for state-of-the-art aircraft design, Bishop was fortunate enough to spend 20 years in technology consulting, helping companies find ways to develop and exploit radically new products.

As I have in the past, I questioned the necessity -- for consultancy, not radical new products. “Most large companies find it impossible to do anything radically new,” he said, “because there are too many middle managers who say, ‘No.’”

When a company starts up, it’s typically with a handful of people who share a bright idea and are visionary in their pursuit of success. They build the business on their backs, but as soon as the strain becomes too great, they can choose to be crushed by the insurmountable amount of pressure (as some do), or they can start hiring people to help get that radically new product into production and introduce quality systems.

The problem is that no matter the amount of vetting during the interview process -- or while poaching competent like-minded workers from past employers -- it’s often difficult to find employees who will champion the company’s vision and products as once did its founders.

Bishop’s personal rule of thumb is that in every large enterprise, an employee who comes up with the next potentially radical new product will be lucky to be championed by one member of senior management as nine others say the idea is too difficult. Regardless of the number of middling middle managers, Bishop gives your idea a 10 percent shot at being heard. That’s right, your product could be the next culture-shifting device, be it by social success or because it was manufactured with poisonous conflict minerals, yet you only stand a 10 percent chance of being heard. I find Bishop’s rule of thumb to be quite high as I’ve heard too many stories of the risk averse shaking off excited colleagues, because the current product lineup is still making plenty of money.

Again, I questioned the necessity. If this was the lone role of the consultant – to essentially smack management upside the head and yell “listen” -- then I still give some benefit of the doubt to the senior leaders. After all, if they recognize that they need to pay a premium to be smacked upside the head, they are at least acknowledging an area of opportunity to which they have become blinded. Oddly enough, Bishop doesn’t agree with the single-minded generalization of a career to which he dedicated two decades.

According to Bishop, it was his job to find ways to create the appropriate internal organization that would enable a better approach to product development. “The technology consulting businesses that I’ve been in have made money by developing products for clients that had been deemed impossible,” he said. “A lot of the job is about identifying all of the major technical and commercial risks upfront and tackling them head on -- then if you fail, you fail fairly cheaply.”

To his point, he added that too many engineers like to first design the “most difficult bits” and arrive at a prototype in mild working order to keep the financial ball rolling, choosing to face real, but minute problems later in the development process.

Essentially, too many managers just say “No”, and in the rare chance that an engineer gets the green light, his/her lack of direction and perspective can cause real problems that also kill the project. According to Bishop, too many large companies can’t even identify these issues, or remain ignorant to them, without hiring a consultant.

I remain steadfast in my belief that each consultant/client relationship is rarely as symbiotic. I’ve heard (and shared) too many stories of product development parasites. I challenge leadership to be more receptive to new product ideas and processes. The industry has enough middling middle managers and far too few partners.

To talk more tales of middling managers, email [email protected].

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