Where to start when leading change? Top, Bottom, or Middle of the Organization? (PART TWO)

      By Sharon Turnbull – Cycle Director IMPM


      This is the second in a two part series examining leading change and where to start the process. In my first blog I looked at then it would be appropriate to begin the change process from the top.   In this second piece I examine leading change from the bottom and the middle of the organization.

      Again there is no easy answer to this question, and each approach has its own merits depending on the nature and context of the change. These challenges are the questions that you may face in your company.  In the IMPM, the International Masters Program for Managers that I direct, senior executives grapple with these very questions.  By sharing their experiences on how they manage different change scenarios they help each other with possible approaches within their organizations and teams. . 

      When would it be inappropriate to lead change from bottom up

      Of course in order to make this happen you and your co directors will need to relinquish some control. This can feel risky, especially if you are leading an organisation that is already facing external challenges. Some organisations are not ready for bottom up change, and need time to develop the  capabilities across the organisation for those at the sharp end to take on new leadership responsibilities.

      How to prepare for bottom up change

      1. Bottom up change leadership will only produce positive results if you first  build the capacity in the  organisation. Your staff may not have been asked to problem solve, make decisions, think about the big picture, offer ideas and implement changes before, and may need some support to develop the skills that will give them the confidence to accept the challenges you are offering them. Asking staff at the bottom of the organisation to contribute to ideas generation about what changes are required and then to enact some of these changes without up skilling these staff is unfair and unlikely to produce positive results.
      2. Bottom up change takes time, requires thoughtful preparation of the workforce as well as cultural reinforcement that you really mean what you say, but has the advantage of producing much more sustainable long term impact.

      When would it be appropriate to lead change from the middle of the organisation?

      1. If you have a middle management group that is used to leading change in their own departments and functions, is well aligned with your goals and values, and has the capabilities to act positively as organisational role models.
      2. If your middle mangers are able to lead downwards and upwards without feeling crushed in the middle and have the resilience and confidence to work together in a connected fashion to shape change.
      3. If your middle managers can think strategically and operationalise their strategic thinking through a participative leadership approach.


      The most unusual strategy for change is to start in the middle of the organisation. Middle managers and supervisors are often overlooked in strategies for change, and consequently can find themselves sidelined or under-utilised in the change process.  Being stuck in the middle during a top down or bottom up change process can be a very uncomfortable place to be.

      Middle managers often find themselves interpreting messages from above for their direct reports,  even if they do not agree with them. Or they can  feel burned out trying to push ideas upwards through impermeable walls to the decision makers above them. Asking your middle managers to drive a change programme may have a number of advantages but needs to be managed carefully.

      If your selection process for promotion into managerial roles is working effectively, your middle managers are likely to share your goals, and feel able to challenge you if they feel things are not working. The managers in the middle of the organisation have the potential to provide the glue across the organisation.

      Your managers are likely to respond very positively to being trusted to roll out a change process especially when you involve them in the design. If your middle managers design the changes they feel are needed, they are much more likely to be engaged and committed to the changes than they might have been if they had inherited a change process from above. Your managers are likely to have many years combined experience of your business or your industry. You will benefit from tapping into it.

      There are no easy ways to decide where to start your change process, but the two blogs in this series might enable you to explore alternative possibilities and evaluate these.



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