There's nothing so satisfying in business as finding a way to blast away a road block to productivity. When the same barrier - 'middle management is the weak link' - pops up in two a high profile reports around the same time, it might pay to listen. Two recent messages fit well together. The first is that middle managers, unwittingly perhaps, inhibit productivity through lacking the right skills (for more, see Australian Institute of Management report). The second is that innovation is a bottom up activity with managers and leaders taking in ideas from their reports (for more, see Public Sector Innovation report). The two messages put 'learner' plates on middle managers for information from two sources, above and below. Following on from that, to do their jobs, logically middle managers must also become teachers as well.
Nobody is pretending that this will be easy to do, but I am reminded that there is a simple idea which is a common thread in both. Listening. Ed Bernacki, positions himself as an innovationalist and writes on the cross over between managers, businesses and new ideas, claims that 'Leaders in business...... must give people (managers) the skills they need, (and) recognise the value of the ideas employees contribute'.
Without listening, we can't learn, middle managers included.
I came across Bernacki's take on this in an article he wrote in The Australian on the weekend 'Note to bosses: it shouldn't be so hard to listen to your people'. His key point is that people, the actual workers, are the ones who know best, through direct experience, how the work is done. People will share many great ideas about how to improve work if you let them tell you.
Bernacki claims that middle managers can learn a lot about how to 'generate and implement ideas for continuous improvement'. He then goes on to talk about a program in the 1940's called Training Within Industries run in the United States which lead to productivity improvements of 25%. This programme, based on the training managers in job instruction, job methods and job relations aimed at 'maximising the contribution of employees'.
So where does this lead us? To a good conversation about how many different ways to learn from the people who do the work on how to innovate around productivity. In other words
.........make the experiences of people at work count.