Defining the Need for Middle-Level Thinking

social fish
social fish

The Absence of Middle-Level Thinking

Associations seem to be very good at high-level thinking. They love their vision statements and mission statements. They work hard on their keynote speeches. They really love platitudes:

•    We’re here for the members
•    Our priority is customer service
•    We support the development or perpetuation of the field

Associations are equally good at details. They love their action plans. They relish the debate about the color of next year’s annual meeting brochure. With a tradition of small staffs, it is not uncommon for senior managers to be immersed in the details of implementation throughout the year.

What associations really need to develop, however, is their middle-level thinking. They need to devote more time to discussing issues and making decisions that rise above the minutia of implementation, but have more subtlety or definition than the blanket statements of the mission and vision realm. Consider the following examples:

Strategy
Strategic plans typically start with the broad mission or vision and then present categories of activities, spelled out in detail. Plans basically “back in” to the middle level, by presenting it as the sum of all the detailed actions. Associations need to make more strategic decisions about the middle level. What really is our priority this year? Of all the things we usually do, which ones will drive our success over the next eighteen months? Those are tough decisions, but if you get clarity on them, it empowers staff to actually be more strategic during the year (rather than simply checking off to-do items from the plan).

Staff Issues
If problems or conflicts develop among staff members, the discussion tends to bounce between the high level (she’s not a team player; he’s not a good fit with our culture; we need her to be more of a leader) and the details (I saw her shopping online during work; he shouldn’t talk to me like that during staff meeting; I can’t believe she said that at a Board meeting). The opportunities for resolution, however, are in that middle level. Yes, you need to talk about the behavior, but you need to spell out how the behavior connects to those high-level conclusions. How is “team player” defined, and why, quite frankly, does everyone need to be one? What really is the culture here and will that drive our success? What is the impact of leadership style on what we are doing? When you work through those discussions, the examination of behavior is more meaningful and effective.

Program Evaluation
There was an article in Forum magazine in May 2006 examining how to decide to cut long-standing programs that perfectly demonstrated the lack of a middle level. The questions they posed tended to be high level (does this program impact the mission?) or detailed (what is the net revenue?). Those are both important, but you need some middle level analysis for this decision as well. How does this program impact our brand? Does this program help us develop internal capacity that helps us in other areas? Is this program taking resources away from our mid-level strategic direction? Without the middle level in this discussion, your evaluation tool becomes too blunt an instrument.

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Maybe I’ll throw a specific question out to Jamie, here.  I think this explanation is pretty good and illustrative, but it’s not a definition per se.  And given that the text is from 2006, and a lot has changed around us in the last six years, maybe Jamie could confirm for us that this is still what we’re talking about.  Are there any different nuances six years on?  And also, would it be worth coming up with a shorter definition of what middle-level thinking is?  Do any of you have other thoughts on that – and on why we still seem to be lacking so much of it in our organizations?  
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