Lean innovation management has changed the way organizations create value. The way we think about creating value today is much different than the way we were thinking about it 10 years ago.

Market changes and new methodologies for value creation are starting to slowly mould organizational structures and work relationships.

Despite what some might think, the main chokepoint for innovation in large organizations today is still the availability and willingness of mid level sponsors to guide, protect and provide resources to the innovation teams.

There is enough passion to do new things, there are enough valuable ideas and there is sufficient strive to work in new ways.

In a recent article, Gifford Pinchot states that: ‘innovation is a game played by the executives and the individual contributors over the heads of the middle management who are busy enforcing the rules’.

If that’s the case, what will be the role of middle managers in the era of lean innovation management?  How will middle managers’ attributions change in an evidence-based decision making environment?

The findings of a 2011 study done by Ethan Mollick at the University of Pennsylvania also show that variations among middle managers have a significant impact on firm performance, much larger than that of those individuals who are assigned innovative roles.

Probably not all organizations can go down the radical path of firing all managers. Morning Star is a good case study for what an organization without middle management can achieve and how it can function, proving that self-management can yield results while transcending the seemingly intractable trade-offs between freedom and control.

But how about legacy organizations in, say, automotive, banking, insurance or heavy industry? They can’t just press the ‘reset’ button and start fresh next Monday. I don’t find it realistic to believe that all organizations can start operating like Gore. Although I believe the world will be a better place if they would.

The attributions of middle managers need to evolve. In an evidence-based environment, middle managers can no longer take faith-based decisions.  The new prerogatives should gravitate around: impartiality and safeguarding of the mind-set.

Making sure contributors are taking data-driven decisions should be more important than making sure they follow a legacy process. Supporting how a team reached a conclusion should be more important than the conclusion itself.

In the era of lean innovation management, middle managers should act like referees.  

The referees are neutral and impartial. Their role is to uphold the rules of the game. Referees on a sports field serve the game not the players. The outcome of a game is of little importance to the referees as they are there to see the teams honouring a process.

Referees are not allowed to favour a team over another. Similarly, future managers should not be allowed to allocate more resources to some teams to the detriment of others.

As referees are not telling teams how to play the game, in the same way, future managers should not tell product teams how to do their job.

With the dawn of self-managing organizations upon us it is possible for future (middle) managers to have more coaching and mentoring prerogatives than management ones. Hence management education needs to evolve too. It might need to include: investor training (taking decisions under conditions of extreme uncertainty), group facilitation skills and even team mentoring.

While middle manager’s future is yet to be written, one thing is certain: their prerogatives will have to change. The change needs to reflect the shift in the way value is being created and delivered.