Strategy in the Middle

I recently finished the book Good Strategy / Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt – (excellent book, highly recommend it) and one of the things that struck me about it was how a good number of the examples had strategy coming from “the top”, which as a middle manager, I was hoping there were have been a little be more I could have applied to my day to day.

As I mulled it over a bit more in my mind I realized I could apply the techniques to my day to day, I just had to apply it to my scope. And the reason for strategy coming from the “top” also became clearer to me.

I’ll use a hypothetical military example (cliché, I know, however when it comes to strategy I find military and chess are the two best ways to illustrate meaning) to explain.

A war is going to have an objective and the objective has to have a clear strategy. Strategies could be:

  • Platoon A takes Area One, while Platoon B takes Area Two then will coordinate a time to pinch Area Four
  • Defend Camp and recruit a whole bunch of new soldiers and to take offensive on all Areas simultaneously
  • Abandon Camp and hide in mountains and forests and attack supply lines.

All of which require to take a look at the situation holistically, which is why this level of strategy needs to come from the “top”. Strategies are NOT:

  • Win the war
  • Win the war by equipping soldiers with Weapon X

Now unfortunately as a middle manager I have more often than not been given something akin to the “not strategies” to work with (increase metric Y, migrate Z, etc). As a middle manager it is my job to uncover the why behind doing what we are asked and work with “top” leaders to uncover a strategy. This can be done in many ways.

  • Work directly with “top” leaders and come up with a strategy together.
  • Write up the “top” strategy as best I could given information I have and shop it around (I’ve been known to say in 1:1s – “My understanding the ‘top’ strategy is X and accordingly I am doing Y”)
  • In order to not be ‘stuck’ could also make up the narrative of company strategy and not shop it around – a caution on this one though is at some point you will need to be accountable for actions taken on this one.

Working with “top” leaders is only one part – as a MIDDLE manager am I also the “top” and I have a scope of my own. This would be akin to the Platoon A leader. There is a scope that Platoon A leader has direct control over and the strategy for Platoon A should account for that scope. It is most effective when part of the global “top” strategy, however in absence of a top strategy a middle manager is still most effective in when being strategic in their own scope.

How to setup the camp, how to coordinate with other Platoon Leaders, setup formations, hold trainings to level people up, etc.

Of course this works best when the “top” level strategy can be anticipated, or as part of the Middle strategy is the ‘no regrets’ work, which can also be strategic. The ‘kernel’ of Rumlet’s Good Strategy is “Diagnosis, Guiding Principles and an Action Plan” the state of the “top” strategy is part of the Diagnosis and this is how you become strategic as a middle manager.