Clayton Christensen first highlighted the role of middle managers as innovation killers in the Innovators dilemma. He did it gain with Michael Overdorf in their great paper called “Meeting the Challenge of Disruptive Change”. The basic premise is that middle managers don’t back truly disruptive innovation ideas because they are either seen as a large career risk, or they have such uncertain (and usually) smaller returns compared to the incumbent model that the idea is deemed ‘ not worth it’.
This is a phenomenon I've seen in action, so its fair to say i’m a believer… But i’d like to add to it.
Middle managers, by default exist in large organisations. Small companies don’t need them…. And almost without exception, large organisations operate using a matrix structure. I think that Matrix structures are also one of the big inhibitors of innovation…. Why??
Well think about it, by definition in a matrix structure, you might end up with 5-10 managers around who are all peers! They are equal, and because of this everyone thinks they have a say…It is actually much worse in some instances. If these peers don’t like the decisions the majority make, they will re-litigate or actively torpedo initiatives. Unless you make the conscious decision to allocate a leader, they matrix actively democratises decisions….
In my humble opinion, this democratising affect essentially takes the ‘middle management innovation killing phenomenon’ and multiplies the by number of peers around the table…