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Middle Managers Role in Strategy Implementation - Middle Managers View

Heini Ikvalko and Petri Aaltonen

Helsinki University of Technology Industrial Engineering and Management Work Psychology and Leadership P.O.Box 9500 FIN-02015 HUT FINLAND tel.: (358) 9 451 4658 fax: (358) 9 451 3665 Presented at the 17th EGOS Colloquium July 5-7, 2001, Lyon, France

This is a draft. Please do not cite or quote without permission of the authors.

The study presented in this paper is a part of a research project on strategy implementation, in which the main interest was how strategies are communicated, interpreted and adopted, and how they affect everyday life in organisations. To understand strategy implementation from an organisation-wide perspective, the focus of the study was greatly on how different actors of the organization act in relation to strategy implementation. More precisely, this paper focuses on the role of middle management. In our research we define middle managers as those actors, who are both subordinates and superiors, that is, between the organisational levels of management and personnel. Thus, our definition includes both middle management and operating management (cf. Floyd and Lane 2000). In literature, strategy implementation has been defined in many ways. Traditionally the focus has been on organisational structure and systems (e.g. Galbraith 1980; Ansoff 1984; Higgins 1985; Thompson & Strickland 1995; Pearce & Robinson 1996; Johnson & Scholes 1999). Some authors (e.g. Bourgeois & Brodwin 1984; Noble 1999) have stressed the communicational and cultural aspects in strategy implementation. Our view on strategy implementation was more consistent with the communicational and cultural aspects than with the view that emphasises structure and systems. However, the starting point in this study was the definitions of the interviewees, the views of 84 middle managers in 12 organisations. Different actors of the organisation are likely to have different views on organisations issues. Therefore, it is interesting to find out the differences and similarities in the views of issues that are supposed to concern all the actors. In this paper, the interest is mainly on how middle management sees strategy implementation. In this paper we report how the middle managers in our study defined the concepts of strategy and strategy implementation, how they saw their role in strategy implementation and, what in their view were the greatest problems of strategy implementation.

The findings are reflected on the views of management as well as on the findings in prior research and literature.

The research data were collected in 12 organisations or units of an organisation. The organisations were mainly professional service organisations, from both public and private sector. For example, finance, insurance and telecommunications companies, and government departments were included. The size of the organisations or the units under study was 100 to 500 employees. The study was qualitative in nature, main research method being semi-structured interviews. In each organisation or unit, representatives from three groups of actors, namely top management, middle management, and personnel, were interviewed. Altogether twenty-five interviewees per organisation were randomly chosen: 2-5 persons representing the management level, 4-13 persons the middle management level, and 8-17 persons the personnel level. The interviewees were chosen randomly, ensuring however that different tasks, work groups, and departments were represented equitably. The general topic of the interviews was strategy implementation. The interviewees were asked, for example, how they participate in the organisations strategy process, and, how they define strategy implementation, and what in their opinion is their own role in it (Table 1). The primary data in this paper consists of 84 interviews of middle managers. In addition, 36 interviews of managers were used. During the interviews, the interviewees also filled in questionnaires, in which they evaluated various problem statements. The problems were those that had been found relevant in prior literature of strategy implementation. The problems were related to feasibility of strategy, awareness of strategy, systems and structure, commitment to strategy, and evaluation and development of strategy implementation. These questionnaires, as well as the comments of the interviewees for the statements, were analysed for the paper, too.

Table 1. Interview questions of the research.1 How do you define the concept of strategy? (What kind of issues do you associate strategy with?) How do you define the concept of strategy implementation? (What kind of issues do you associate strategy implementation with?) How do you participate in the strategy process? [Was asked first as an open question, then by going through a process chart describing organisations strategy process] Describe your own role in strategy implementation. How do you communicate strategies? Evaluate the degree of the following strategy implementation problems in your organisation. [Interviewer handed interviewee a questionnaire which was then discussed and filled up]

The main data analysis method was content analysis (e.g. Krippendorff 1980) of the interviews. The transcribed interviews were coded according to the central issues of the research. Typologies, matrices and quantification of the qualitative data were used for analysing the issues at interest (e.g. Miles & Huberman 1984).

Strategy implementation
Before discussing the roles of middle management in strategy implementation, we grasp to the concepts of strategy and strategy implementation. Interviewees were asked to define the concepts themselves, and the results are presented and discussed here. We believe that the view someone has on implementation is associated with the way she sees her own role in it.

The concept of strategy

Our focus here is on strategy implementation, but before dwelling into that we must understand the ways the concept of strategy has been defined. The word strategy has long been used both in business and in academia in different ways and there exists number of definitions and schools of strategy research. We will go through two theo-

Interviews included also a number of other questions on topics not covered in this paper.

retical categorisations but first we look at the definitions middle managers gave in our research. The middle managers view In the beginning of the interviews, the middle managers were asked to define the concept of strategy. Most often, by almost half of the interviewees, strategy was defined as some kind of consistent way of action. Concepts like policy, line of action and operational principle were mentioned. Almost as common definitions were goal, objective, vision, or direction. Quite often middle managers mentioned that strategy is connected to vision, goal or objective but more often they included these concepts in the concept of strategy. Thirdly common definition was the means to achieve goal, objective or vision, whereas plans and planning comprised the fourthly popular group of definitions. The five most common definitions interviewees gave, the number of interviewees mentioning it, and the respective percentages are presented in table 2.
Table 2. Middle managers five most common definitions of strategy. Definition of strategy (n=84) 1 2 3 4 5 Policy, line of action, or operational principle Goal, objective, vision, or direction Means to achieve goal, objective, or vision Plan, planning Is connected to vision, goal or objective Number of persons who mentioned2 39 33 25 20 17 Percentage of all interviewees 46 % 39 % 30 % 24 % 20 %

The middle managers definitions differed somewhat from the managers definitions. The managers mentioned most often goal, objective, vision, or direction and the means for reaching them. Only after those definitions came the consistent way of action (policy, line of action, or operational principle), which, at the same time, was the most popular middle managers definition of strategy. Here, one could draw a conclu-

Interviewees often mentioned several issues, which belonged into either same or different categories.

Figures here tell how many different persons mentioned at least one definition in this category.

sion that the managers were slightly more concerned on the organisations external issues, while middle managers focused a little more on internal issues. Somewhat surprisingly, references to external issues, other than vision and direction of organisation, were few among both managers and middle managers. Only some of them mentioned organisations environment, customers, business idea, brand, image, scenarios or position in connection with strategy. Also rare were definitions of strategy as a guarantee of organisations success or a means to differentiate form competitors. In the following sections, the definitions of strategy will be compared with Mintzbergs and Chaffees models of strategy. Mintzbergs Five Ps In his five Ps model Mintzberg (Mintzberg & Quinn 1991, Mintzberg et al. 1998) defines strategy as a plan, a ploy, a pattern, a position, and a perspective. Plan is defined as a consciously intended course of action, or a guideline to deal with a situation. Ploy means a specific maneuver intended to outwit an opponent or competitor. While plan and ploy refer to intended strategies, that is, looking forward, pattern is a stream of actions or consistency in behaviour over time, or, looking back. Strategy as a position looks outside an organisation, seeking to locate the organisation in its environment, whereas strategy as a perspective looks inside the organisation and inside its members heads, referring to a shared way of perceiving the world. The definitions middle managers gave (see table 2) fell in most cases into the plan category of Mintzbergs five Ps model. Definitions at ranks 2 to 5, that is, goal, objective, vision, or direction, means to achieve them, and plans and planning, belong clearly to the plan view of strategy. The most common single group of definitions, policy, line of action, or operational principle seems to fit best to the Mintzbergs pattern category. Strategy definitions fitting to Mintzbergs position view were quite few and references to the ploy and perspective views were close to zero.

Chaffees three models of strategy Chaffee (1985) has provided a categorisation of strategy into three models: linear, adaptive and interpretive strategy. Of these three, linear model focuses on planning. According to the linear view, strategy consists of integrated decisions, actions, or plans that will be set to achieve organisational goals. Both the goals and the means of achieving them are results of strategic decision. In the adaptive model of strategy organisation is continually evaluating its external and internal conditions. Main concern here is the development of a viable match between the opportunities and risks present in the external environment and the organizations capabilities and resources for exploiting these opportunities. The interpretive model of strategy is associated with the social and cultural aspects of an organisation. Strategy is about conveying meanings, by using orienting metaphors or frames of reference that are intended to motivate stakeholders in ways that favour the organisation. To sum up, do the definitions of the middle managers go along these models? The middle managers definitions of strategy fell mostly into the linear model of strategy, which is quite similar to Mintzbergs plan view. A few comments on the environment, customers, and strategy as a guarantee of success reflected the Chaffees adaptive model, which is close to Mintzbergs position view. Definitions supporting Chaffees interpretive model, as well as Mintzbergs ploy and perspective views, were practically non-existent.

The concept of strategy implementation

Strategy implementation has received increasing attention in literature (e.g. Bourgeois & Brodwin 1984; Alexander 1991; Grundy 1998; Noble 1999; Beer & Eisenstat 2000; Flood et al. 2000). However, no coherent research paradigm seems to exist, main reason being the diversity of perspectives that have been taken in defining the concept (Noble 1999). We start here with the middle managers conceptions and then connect them to two theoretical models.

The middle managers view The definition of strategy implementation caused slightly more difficulties among interviewees than the concept of strategy. Some middle managers said that implementation is just doing things or turning strategy into action. However, almost everyone could give a more detailed description on the concept. The variety of issues mentioned was large. The data were analysed by classifying the definitions. Five categories were created based on the data. The categories, in the order of frequency from most common to least common, are: management, communication, planning, control, and daily actions. The middle managers who had the management view talked about different actions, means, methods, and tools, top-down process and organisation. Communicational view on implementation was mainly about communicating the strategy and enhancing the motivation and commitment of personnel. Planning view included different plans (e.g. annual plans), goal/objective setting and recognition. Control view dealt with instructions, rules, policies, monitoring and measurement. Strategy implementation as daily actions means that strategy is taken into account in every day work and it shows as changes in working practices and priorities. The categories, the definitions, the number of interviewees mentioning it, and the respective percentages are presented in table 3.

Table 3. Middle managers definitions of strategy implementation. Definition of strategy implementation (n=84) 1 MANAGEMENT actions, carrying out things means, methods, tools process top-down organising putting things to smaller pieces decision making projects competence development, training power relationships tactics 2 COMMUNICATION communication enhancing commitment, motivation concretising reflecting in ones own group understanding ones own role or task leadership objective / result / development discussions seminars/theme days agreeing on things considering development areas discussions meetings suggestions bottom-up 3 PLANNING goal / objective setting planning, plans goal / objective recognition resources schedule environment analysis 4 CONTROL instructions, rules, policies monitoring, control, measurement taking care of the execution of plans balanced scorecard 5 DAILY ACTIONS taking strategy into account in every day work changes in focus or priorities changes in working practices Number of persons3 47 Percentage 56%









Interviewees often mentioned several issues, which belonged into either same or different categories.

Figures here tell how many different persons mentioned at least one definition in this category.

In their definitions of implementation, the majority of middle managers mentioned some kind of managerial issues. Also the managers had most often the management view on strategy implementation. A little less than a half of both managers and middle managers mentioned also communicational issues. The greatest difference in the frequencies of managers and middle managers definitions was in planning. Managers talked more often about planning and generation of different plans (58% of managers) in the in association with strategy implementation than middle managers (42% of middle managers). Next, we will compare the categories presented here with two prior classifications, namely those of Nobles and Bourgeois and Brodwins. Nobles view on strategy implementation Noble (1999) has made a large review of research carried out in the dispersed field of strategy implementation. Noble himself combines the perspectives and, having a focus on the process of implementation, defines strategy implementation as communication, interpretation, adoption and enactment of strategic plans. Noble makes a distinction between structural and interpersonal process views on strategy implementation. The structural perspective focuses on formal organisational structure and control mechanisms, while the interpersonal process is about understanding issues like strategic consensus, autonomous strategic behaviours, diffusion perspectives, leadership and implementation styles, and communication and other interaction processes. Of our strategy implementation categories, the management, planning and control seem to be quite close to Nobles structural view and our communication category seem to fit to interpersonal process view of Noble. Our daily actions category, that is, taking strategy into account in every day work by changing focus or working practices, seems not to fit easily into any of the Nobles categories. An interesting result here is that although structural view was dominating, the interpersonal processes can be seen quite often in the middle managers definitions as well. 10

Bourgeois & Brodwins five models of strategy implementation Bourgeois & Brodwin (1984) categorise strategy implementation into five models, which they say to represent a trend toward increasing sophistication in thinking about implementation and also a rough chronological trend in the field. In commander model, general manager, after exhaustive period of strategic analysis, makes the strategic decision, presents it to top managers, tells them to implement it, and waits for the results. In this model, general manager has a great deal of power and access to complete information, and is insulated from personal biases and political influences. The model also splits the organisation into thinkers and doers. In change model, after making strategic decisions, general manager plans a new organisational structure, personnel changes, new planning, information measurement and compensation systems, and cultural adaptation techniques to support the implementation of the strategy. Collaborative model of strategy implementation goes to involve the management team in strategic decision-making. General manager employs group dynamics and brainstorming techniques to get managers with different viewpoints to provide their inputs to the strategy process. Cultural model takes the participative elements to lower levels in the organisation as an answer to the strategic management question How can I get my whole organisation committed to our goals and strategies? The general manager guides organisation by communicating her vision and allowing each individual to participate in designing her work procedures in concert with the vision. In crescive model the strategy comes upward from the bottom of the organisation, rather than downward from the top. The general managers role is to define organisations purposes broadly enough to encourage innovation, and to select judiciously from among those projects or strategy alternatives that reach his attention. Again, we can compare our findings on middle managers conceptions of strategy implementation with the model summarised above. The most common definitions in management, planning, and control categories (see table 3) fall best into Bourgeois 11

and Brodwins commander and change models. Signs of collaborative model can be seen in few comments on seminars and meetings for managers. Elements of cultural model could be seen rather frequently in comments on e.g. communication, commitment, motivation, reflecting in lower level groups, and understanding ones own role. The crescive model with its bottom-up approach to strategy implementation is a trickier one. Maybe definitions in our last category, daily actions, which means taking strategy into account in every-day work, could be close to this model. How about then the most common single definition, actions, and carrying out things? It seems to fit none of the models or, on the other hand, into every model. Perhaps actions or doing things is as a concept too general and it does not express the initiator of actions, which is essential part in Bourgeois and Brodwins models.

Middle managers different roles

Middle management is one of the actors in strategy implementation, and in organizational change in general. In literature their role has been widely discussed, both highlighted and questioned. In the early 90s, many authors, e.g. in management philosophies like lean management (Womack 1990), questioned the function of middle management. There are also those who argue for the importance of the middle managers' role (e.g. Nonaka & Takeuchi 1995; Fenton-O'Creevy 2000). Those who side with middle management state that middle managers have a key role in organizations, as they have both the ability to combine strategic (context-free) and hands-on (context-specific) information (Nonaka 1988). Burgelman (1983) emphasizes the importance of autonomous behaviour initiated outside top management and therefore, middle managers have a crucial role in formulating new strategies and trying to convince the top management of them. Further, Guth and Macmillan (1986) studied strategy implementation versus middle management self-interest, and suggested that middle managers who believe that their self-interest is being compromised can not only redirect a strategy, delay its implementation or reduce the quality of its implementation, but can also even totally sabotage the strategy.


In implementing strategic change, models of strategic roles for different managerial levels have been developed (e.g. Floyd & Wooldridge 1992; Nonaka 1988; see also Floyd & Lane 2000). These models describe the behaviours that are expected from middle managers. Floyd and Wooldridges (1994) model combines upward and downward influence with integrative and divergent thinking. According to them, there are four main roles, namely championing alternatives, synthesizing information, facilitating adaptability, and implementing deliberate strategy (Figure 1).
Behavioural Activity Upward Influence Downward Influence Divergent Cognitive influence Integrative Championing Strategic Alternatives Synthesizing Information Facilitating Adaptability Implementing Deliberate Strategy

Figure 1. A typology of Middle Management Roles in Strategy (Floyd & Woodridge 1992).

Floyd and Lane (2000) concluded the findings of prior research into ten managerial roles, each of them involving both processing of information and taking action. According to their categorization, top management has decision-making roles of ratifying, directing, and recognizing. Middle managers role is to communicate between the operating and top levels of management in the forms of championing, facilitating, synthesizing, and implementing. Operating managers react to information by experimenting, conforming or responding.

The middle managers view

Of the four main roles by Floyd and Wooldridge (1994, see Figure 1), the middle managers we interviewed experienced the role of implementing deliberate strategy as their main role. This role has a downward and integrative influence. The behaviour relating to this role was typically concretising the strategy to the personnel. In addition, to communicate the organizations goals, to plan the required actions, and also, scheduling and control, were included. Challenges in this role had to do with communication and motivation. Also, it was experienced challenging to manage the two-way 13

communication, to become self motivated and then motivate the subordinates, to communicate the strategy so that also the subordinates find it important. The second common role in the middle managers opinion was to facilitate adaptability, with divergent influence directing downward. The middle manager in this role acted as facilitator of change, removed obstacles like contradictory goals, and ensured the required resources. The behaviours like reflecting, discussing and empowering personnel were included. The interviewees who talked about their role as facilitators were mostly superiors of self-directed teams. The roles with upward influence were less common. In the role of synthesizing the middle manager evaluated effectiveness of the actions that had been implemented, and communicated the feedback upwards. The role of championing was typically bringing innovations upwards in the organization. The managers who adopted this role participated in the vision creation, brought their unit or groups view in the strategy work. In this role, the challenging part was the effectiveness of this participation: to some extent, the interviewees had doubts whether their ideas had any effect.

Problems in strategy implementation

Our own experiences and studies, as well as literature in general argue that strategy implementation is a difficult task in practice. The problems in strategy implementation include unfeasibility of the strategy, weak management role, lack of communication, lacking commitment to the strategy, unawareness or misunderstanding of the strategy, unaligned organizational systems and resources, poor coordination and sharing of responsibilities, inadequate capabilities, unexpected obstacles, competing activities, delayed schedule, uncontrollable environmental factors, and negligence of daily business. (Alexander 1991; Giles 1991; Galpin 1998; Lares-Mankki 1994; Beer & Eisenstat 2000). In our study, both the management and the middle management saw that maybe the biggest problem of strategy implementation is to get the strategies become a part of everyday life. The everyday life with its routines and busyness prevents strategic thinking and acting in the organisations. The middle managers face the reality of eve14

ryday life in several issues. More often than the managers, the middle managers saw more problematic the lack of resources in strategy implementation, as well as indistinct role definitions. Also, from their view the inconsistency of different strategies was more often seen problematic. The problem statements that had to do with communication were as group seen the most problematic. The middle managers held the view that most problematic is that it is assumed (by managers or middle managers) that everybody already knows the strategy, received strategy information is not correctly understood, or, information flow is discontinued at some level of the organisation. Commitment for strategy was not seen as problematic as communication. Nevertheless, both the management and the middle management felt that the lower the actor is in the organization hierarchy, the less she commits herself for the strategy. The middle managers felt that it was difficult to evaluate how they commit themselves for the strategy. Although the managers saw the problem of middle managers lack of commitment bigger than the middle managers themselves, half of the middle managers expressed the existence of the problem as well. Further, the problems of acceptance and adoption of strategy were assessed to hinder strategy implementation more than the lack of commitment. Generally, the middle managers evaluated it as a bigger problem than the managers. The problem statement that the reward system would conflict with the strategy was considered one of the biggest single problems of strategy implementation. This view was shared both by the management and the middle management. The middle managers, however, evaluated the problem greater than the managers. Also, they found the evaluation of this problem statement very difficult. Many middle managers commented that they did not know what the reward system is like in their organisation, or even doubted that there exists one.


When evaluating the findings, some limitations of the study should be taken into account. More detailed analysis of the environment of the organisations or other organisational factors like organisation structure could have been made and reflected on the findings. Also, the way the interviews were conducted may have guided the interviewees thoughts on defining the key concepts: after all, at the beginning of the interviews we presented the aims of the study, that is, to find out how strategies affect everyday life in organisations. The findings of this study support the earlier research on the roles of middle management. The middle managers saw their role mainly as influencing downwards, often as certain kind of messenger of interpreter. The main role was considered implementing deliberate strategies while the role of facilitating change was ranked second. The roles with upward influence seemed not as relevant as the ones with downward influence. Although some authors have considered middle management redundant, we agree with the opposite view. Middle managers do have a role in strategy implementation as well. However, that role must accommodate to changing conditions of the organisation. For example, management philosophies like autonomous work groups are changing the role of middle management; this study suggests that the middle managers in those organisations with autonomous teams tended to see their role more as facilitators. An issue for further research and especially for discussion in organisations in assigning middle managers is the question of needed competencies. What are the key competences of middle managers in their different roles? How to facilitate the changes in the role demands by e.g. training? The communicational role of middle managers was present also in the middle managements views on strategy implementation. Managing top-down processes, communicating the strategy, motivating and committing the personnel for the strategy were included in their definitions. The middle managers view on strategy implementation did not include planning to such a degree as the managers view.


As to the problems of strategy implementation, the findings of this study are, at least to some extent, aligned with the results of prior research. Lack of communication seems to be an eternal problem, and appeared also in this study. Likewise, commitment was seen in some degree problematic. Acceptance and adoption of strategy are not that much emphasised on prior research, but according to our data seemed quite relevant problems. Of the systems and resources, the most problematic was the lack of connection between strategy and reward systems. Other problems suggested by prior research, like unfeasibility of strategy or uncontrollable environmental factors, were not that much present. All in all, the most significant difficulty in strategy implementation seemed to be to get the strategies become a part of everyday life. The middle managers saw the problems of strategy implementation from more concrete level of organisations activities than the managers. Middle managers are the ones who face the problems of resources but also the problem of really understanding strategies and adapting them to the daily actions. These problem statements were the ones that differed most between management and middle management. Despite the newer insights on the forums of strategy research the organisations tend to see the world of strategy still from rather traditional perspective. The views on strategy implementation did have same elements as the existing models, with the emphasis on structural as well as commander and change models. Some consistency between the definitions of strategy and strategy implementation, and the roles of middle managers could be noticed. The emphasis on both was on the implementation of planned strategies. Inspired by the discussion of which follows which, structure or strategy, it could be suggested that the roles follow the conceptions of strategy implementation. Or vice versa? To show any real connections, however, further analysis is to be made because for this paper, the views on strategy implementation and the roles were not analysed jointly. The views of the middle managers represented more or less the traditional view on strategy and strategy implementation. One could pose a question of what would the 17

role descriptions be like if strategy and strategy implementation were defined differently? Burgelman (1983) e.g. emphasises the role of autonomous behaviour initiated outside top management. In his model there are two kinds of strategic activities, namely the induced and the autonomous strategic activities. He suggests that autonomously behaving middle managers formulate broader strategies for areas of new business activity and try to convince top management to support them. If the middle managers would share this view on strategy, their views on their roles would probably be different from the views presented in this paper.

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