Monster.com, an internet job hunting website, was new to the scene in 1999 when it placed a big bet on a Super Bowl Commercial. It featured a series of children citing their aspirations to file useless paperwork, create meaningless documents, and brown-nose their way up the corporate food chain. “When I grow up I want to be in Middle Management”, said one glum looking child, absent of any zest for life. It closed with the screen going dark and Monster asking people what they really wanted to be when they grew up.
The ad was a huge success and one of the most memorable Super Bowl ads of all time. Why? Because the sentiment resonated with millions of Americans. Being Middle Management is hard. And rarely is the position aspirational. Sandwiched between power and responsibility, it can leave individuals feeling disenfranchised and just plain stuck. Many times, those in this corporate no man’s land can look fondly on entrepreneurs as working in a fantasy world where one has 100% control.
It turns out that both views are inaccurate. Middle Managers do have ways to exercise control. And entrepreneurs do not operate in environments where they have 100% control. The reality is that the most successful entrepreneurs are able to create control through the framework of Effectuation. Middle Managers can learn from the tools used by entrepreneurs to derive control and apply these methods in their own company environments.
How Entrepreneurs Get Control
Control means having the power to influence or shape behaviors and outcomes. Effectuation is the process by which entrepreneurs gain control in the face of uncertainty. Using the 5 principles outlined by Dr. Saras Sarasvathy of UVA’s Darden School of Business, entrepreneurs shape the outcomes of their ventures. This allows them to innovate and bring to life things that could not have been predicted. The 5 principles are:
- Pilot in the Plane: The mindset that things are created, not predestined
- Bird in Hand: The ability to identify and build on who they are, what they have, what they know, and who they know
- Affordable Loss: Setting a downside limit for experimentation to enable recovery from the unanticipated
- Crazy Quilt: Developing strong stakeholder networks centered on commitments and co-creation
- Lemonade: Reacting to surprises as opportunities to be leveraged, not mistakes to be mitigated
Underlying all 5 of the principles is the idea of commitments. Commitments require that parties are co-invested in outcomes. They mutually agree to pursue a shared vision. Even if motivations and means differ, at the point of time in which they come together, they share a unity of purpose and are both vested in the success and / or failure of the joint pursuit.
Entrepreneurs get control by first letting go of their idea. It starts with conversations. Successful entrepreneurs don’t keep their ideas to themselves. They share them with others. It’s not that they trumpet them proudly or broadcast them for publicity’s sake. Instead, they offer them in conversation as opportunities for others to opt in and participate in building on their idea.
The more people who are exposed to the entrepreneur’s concept, the more likely the entrepreneur is to find others who connect with their idea and offer to join efforts with him or her in a meaningful way.
Once a link is established between entrepreneur and potential stakeholder, a discussion ensues in which both parties seek to understand more about each other, the outcomes being pursued, and the resources they could bring to bear.
Eventually, if both parties can envision a mutually beneficial outcome, the next step is for each party to make commitments to the pursuit of this vision. These commitments could be an investment of time, money, social capital, or any additional resource imagined. Balancing the investment so that both parties feel a significant stake in the outcome is optimal. This does not mean that the investments should be equal. The venture benefits from each party bringing their unique contributions to the table. But while resource inequality is expected, relative equality in gains and losses is desired.
The entrepreneur replicates this exercise with numerous stakeholders of various forms throughout venture creation. With the addition of each stakeholder, the entrepreneur cedes control. But they gain control over the process and likelihood of successfully creating a new market.
What can Middle Managers Learn from this?
There are several steps Middle Managers can borrow from the entrepreneur’s playbook:
1. Building partnerships is a way to exert control.
If you have an innovative idea you want to grow but the corporate structure you’re in limits your authority, seek to build alliances. Like an entrepreneur, start talking about your ideas with others. If your environment requires it, be political about how you phrase things and who you approach, but don’t completely rule out your ability to move things forward by creating a team of champions.
2. Alignment of goals increases control.
If your team or division is responsible for certain outcomes but not for the entire process, look for ways to establish mutual responsibility along your entire delivery chain. Engage stakeholders in the process to create linkages that build on opportunities to support each other in achieving desired shared outcomes.
3. The future doesn’t have to be just as you imagined it.
This might be the most important lesson entrepreneurs can teach. Even Steve Jobs, acclaimed by many as a great visionary, thought the future was going to be in “make your own computer kits”. It was only because hobby stores wouldn’t buy them and instead encouraged him to bring his computers in already assembled that he began down the path of the Apple we know today.
When entering into conversations with stakeholders, whether internal or external to your organization, don’t position things as “yes or no”. Instead, be open to the other participant adding their input to your vision. If it’s something you agree with, build on it. And then, make sure that they contribute something of value towards achieving what is now a shared goal.
Empowering Middle Management
Middle Management might not be glamorous, but it doesn’t have to be glum. There are ways to gain control of organizational outcomes and exercise management creativity, even if company structures are not designed to explicitly offer this authority. Use relationships, experience, technical knowledge, and influence to shape your ideas and outcomes in ways that benefit both you and your organization. Knowing that you can exert control in ways other than top down will help you see ways to lead through problems and uncertainty.
In business, having control is viewed as a sign of strength. We seldom boast of giving it away. But successful entrepreneurs frequently do let go of control – and for good reason. It’s how innovative ventures grow.
--Written by Sara Whiffen, Founder & Managing Partner, Insights Ignited LLC