Sunday, 31 October 2010 00:00

The Dearth of Competent Middle Management

Rate this item
(1 Vote)

It happens hundreds of times a day around the world, the CIO calls an urgent IT Management Committee meeting. She has heard that one of the projects in the portfolio, a seemingly simple project doing a routine upgrade, is projecting a 20 percent cost overrun and will be three months late. How can a project go that far off track since the last week's executive team meeting? Managers scramble to get their stories straight, determine who to blame, form opinions and alibis, and pummel the project manager for failing to manage the project correctly, even though he has been saying the project is in trouble for months. The project has drifted from its initial intent and now the ultimate goal is to find someone to blame.

Corporate Culture

Something has broken down in middle management. How could it fail to see the impending doom? This layer is supposed to monitor projects, consolidate information, and provide guidance to project managers and executives. With trouble, these managers are now in a position of reacting rather than directing. They try to push the problem down and eventually come in to "help" the project. Nothing strikes more fear into the heart of a project manager than hearing, "Hi, we're from management and we're here to help." Their form of help is to request reports, slice scope, and impose time constraints rather than determine the root cause of the delay. The result is a poorly developed product that is still over budget and requires excessive time and money to maintain. In the end, middle management gets credit for the rescue, the project team receives the blame, and customer is displeased with the product since it has no value.

The problem stems from middle management's culture. They fail to report or act on actual status, which eliminates the opportunity for small mid-course corrections. Their hope that the project will correct itself, despite the fundamental flaws in the assumptions, is a panacea. For them, ignorance is much easier than resetting expectations and gaining alignment.

To exacerbate this problem, current business culture rewards the fire fighter and penalizes the pragmatist. The urgent rescue produces immediate gratification at the cost of a robust solution and yields only short-term benefits rather than properly addressing the problem with logical analysis and resolving the root causes of the problem.

It is all About People

In all of this, the people assigned to solve the problem—middle management—are the problem. For whatever reason—the Peter Principle, ignorance, inattention, or the desire to be a hero—middle managers by and large are not monitoring projects or correcting the problems as they appear. Ignorance is no excuse. Attempting to blame incomplete project reports is only denying the manager's fiduciary responsibility to validate the project's progress. No matter how one looks at it, middle managers are not doing their jobs.

Over the last few months, I have accrued numerous theories on why this is happening:

  1. The Peter Principle has been taken on a new dimension. With the rapid expansion of businesses prior to 2008, qualified resources were difficult to find, too many people were promoted to fill positions without a thorough vetting of their qualifications.
  2. Companies over emphasize short-term gains. As underscored by events such as quarterly earnings and maintaining triple constraints, companies focus excessively on "the now" versus a long-term view of the product's value.
  3. Everyone admires the hero that comes in to fix the problem. At least in the US, the imagery of the white-hatted cowboy riding in on a gallant steed to solve all the problems in one swift, albeit short sighted, swoop continues to capture our imagination and wonderment. We as a society envy their abilities.

Although these are all perfectly valid, I have to stick to my personal view that at its root companies are tantalized by technology, processed by process, and removed from their resources. This prioritization must change. We need to hire people that have experience, not certifications; we need interpersonal communications, not status reports; we need old-fashioned management, not a checklist for grading performance.

Tantalized by Technology

Sarcasm abounds on how technology has made our lives simpler and less hectic—cars are easier to maintain, nearly instant communication has reduced our stress, and technology failures rarely cause anxiety. However, some of us are old enough to remember the days when we could tune cars in our own garage, escape from the phone by leaving the building, and power failures were not predecessors to panic attacks. As such, technology should not be our first line of defence or offense. Demote it to a tool used after the right people are in place to perform the job in the most efficient manner. The proper priority is people, then process, and, in a distant third, technology.

Back to the Basics

Put down your cell phones, close email, walk down the hall, and talk to the people doing the work. One-on-one interaction, with all its body language; casual conversation, with its innocuous but vital titbits; and the ability to quickly correct a misunderstanding are at the core of communication and leadership. Doing this will identify the real status of the project, identify and help solve problems, backfill for the project manager's deficiencies, and quietly create success. It will lack the flash, urgency, and attention of the flamboyant failure; however, quiet and trustworthy success will build confidence and credibility in the manager and the leader. Success that provides value is always recognized.

Read 48866 times

Related items

  • People vs Process Track Session/Keynote Example

    If you want educational keynote many of our presentations can be keynotes or track sessions. In the example below, the presentation People or Process: Which Impacts Project Success More? is given as a track session.  

    Example People vs Process keynote as a track session

    This session was given at the PMI Sioux Empire Professions Development Day help in Sioux Falls SD on September 9, 2014.

  • Webinar Topic Example

    Nearly any topic that Todd Williams writes about or speaks on, he can do a webinar. You can find some of his "uni-directional" webinars on (see partial listing below) or you can have a fully interactive session as in the audio clip.  The limitations of the session are based on the tool used. In this example, the ZOOM meeting tool was used and it did not allow recording of the video. The session was recorded on May 29, 2019 at 12:30PM London time (4:30AM Pacific). There were about a dozen people online, about half of them had their video turned on, and the meeting organizer (Jonathan Norman) moderated the call. 

    What Example Webinar: Eliminating Blame Covers

    Here are three uni-directional webinar examples posted on (these are free to PMI Members)

  • Transform Your Project Leadership: For Professionals Leading Projects or Company Initiatives

    Todd Williams contributed Chapter 7, "Leaders Listen." You can buy it on Amazon.

    More coming soon!

  • Filling Execution Gaps: How Executives and Project Managers Turn Corporate Strategy into Successful Projects
    What Filling Execution Gaps Covers

    Filling Execution Gaps

    by Todd C. Williams
    ISBN: 978-1-5015-0640-6
    De G Press (DeGruyter), September 2017

    Project alignment, executive sponsorship, change management, governance, leadership, and common understanding. These six business issues are topics of daily discussions between executives, middle management, and project managers; they are the pivotal problems plaguing transformational leadership. Any one of these six, when improperly addressed, will hex a project's chances for success. And, they do—daily—destroying the ability companies to turn vision into value.

    Check it out on Amazon or the Filling Execution Gaps website

    Without the foundation of a common understanding of goals and core concepts, such as value being critical to success, communication stops and projects fail.

    Without change management, users fail to adopt project deliverables, value is lost, and projects fail.

    Without maintaining alignment between corporate goals and projects, projects miss their value targets and projects fail.

    Without an engaged executive sponsor, scope increases, goals drift, chaos reigns, value is lost, and projects fail.

    Without enough governance, critical connections are not made, steps are ignored, value is overlooked, and projects fail.

    Too much governance slows progress, companies cannot respond to business pressures, value drowns in bureaucracy, and projects fail.

    Without strong leadership defining the vision and value, goals are not set, essential relationships do not form, teams do not develop, essential decisions are not made, and projects fail.

  • Filling Execution Gaps: Building Success-Focused Organizations

    Executives define vision, strategy, and goals to advance the business. Projects enable companies to meet those goals. Between strategy and projects, there is a lot of work to be done—work that lays the foundation for project and operational success. Through experience and research, six common gaps exist in organizations that inhibit project success—an absence of common understanding, disengaged executive sponsors, misalignment with goals, poor change management, ineffective governance, and lackluster leadership.

Leave a comment

Filling Execution Gaps

Available Worldwide

Filling Exectution Gaps cover

Filling Execution Gaps is available worldwide. Below are some options.


PG DirectLogo
Limited Time Price $20.99
Amazon logo
Book or Kindle
Flag of the United States Canadian Flag Flag of the United Kingdom Irish Flag Deutsche Flagge
Drapeau Français Bandiera Italiana PRC flag
Japanese flag
Bandera de España
Flag of India
Bandera de México
Bandeira do Brasil
Flag of Australia
Vlag van Nederland
DeG Press Logo
Barnes and Noble Logo
Books a Million Logo
Booktopia Logo
Worldwide: Many other
book sellers worldwide.

Rescue The Problem Project

Internationally acclaimed

Image of RPP

For a signed and personalized copy in the US visit the our eCommerce website.

Amazon logo
Buy it in the United States Buy it in Canada Buy it in the United Kingdom
Buy it in Ireland Buy it in Germany Buy it in France
Buy it in Italy Buy it in the PRC
Buy it in Japan
Book sellers worldwide.

Other's References

More Info on Project Recovery

Tell me More!

Please send me more information
on fixing a failing project.

Upcoming Events