The Role of Middle Managers in Strategy

The role of middle managers in strategy

This paper presents a summary of my study so far into the current literature on the strategic role of middle managers in organisations, and particularly their influence on organisational performance through involvement in strategic planning processes.


Despite considerable criticism over many years, strategic planning remains a persuasive and influential phenomenon in the world, perhaps more so than ever. Almost 40 years ago, the pioneers of strategic planning saw strategy formulation as the role of the strategist. It was a deliberate and rational process which gave an organisation clearly defined purpose or goals and deliberately chosen direction. Despite many changes in the intervening years, these ideas are still the basis of many textbooks and influence strategic processes in most large organisations throughout the world.
During the 1980s, the focus on the CEO as strategist was broadened to look at the role of the Top Management Team. Despite a substantial body of work establishing the strategic influence of middle managers, the belief in a simple link between top management team characteristics and performance, has persisted.
The use of strategic planning in police organisations has become established in the last 10 years, but there is a lack of research looking at the effectiveness of this effort. At the same time the role of the middle manager in delivering performance has grown significantly. This raises questions about whether strategic planning processes used by police forces have adapted to this structural change and what is the role of middle managers in the effectiveness of strategic planning.
Strategic planning and the elusive link with performance
The rational, deliberate basis of strategic planning was strongly challenged by Mintzberg in his seminal paper based on the strategies of Volkswagen and the US government in Vietnam. His definition of strategy as “a pattern in a stream of decisions” and later, even more radically, “a pattern in a stream of actions” led to the argument that strategy can be emergent as well as deliberate. This fundamentally questioned the division between formulation and implementation which had previously formed the heart of the strategic planning disciplines. Mintzberg’s ideas challenged the principle that making strategy was the role only of the top team, and from the mid 1980s:
“… the scope of strategy process research [was] expanded to include not only top managers but also middle managers and other mid-level professionals whose activities and behaviours have important consequences for how strategy forms within organisations”.
While the argument between deliberate or emergent ideas of strategy has continued, writers currently accept that the two sides actually co-exist and that strategy formation is neither completely deliberate nor emergent.
Many studies have looked for the link between the use of strategic planning in organisations and performance. Earlier studies which had mixed and inconclusive results have more recently been criticised for their flawed methodologies and simplistic theoretical bases. Later researchers however, recognised a clear link between strategic planning and performance, but agreed that the relationship was “subtle and complex”.

Exploring the complexity

The difficulty of understanding the link between strategic planning and performance led to three broad areas of study aimed at unpacking the complexity. First, the influence of environmental and organisational factors on the effectiveness of planning; second, a reappraisal of exactly how strategic planning is expected to impact on organisations; and third, the role played by middle managers.
A range of studies has been carried out in the last two decades looking for a link between strategic planning processes and environmental factors. These have concluded that there is no one best strategic planning process. Characteristics like the extensiveness of the process, the planning horizon, frequency, orientation to stakeholders, and the role of corporate staff in the process were seen as needing to fit the characteristics of the organisation and its markets.
The question about the actual role of strategic planning had started to be discussed in 1982 when, in an influential work, Ohmae suggested that strategic planning processes were successful not because of the analysis but because of the shared understanding which they helped develop. This suggestion asserted the importance of people rather than analysis in planning processes, a theme which has already been mentioned in this review and has been supported by later studies. These ideas link strongly with Mintzberg’s famous image of a potter ‘crafting’ strategy through which he argued that strategy was formed by people engaging and reacting to it, rather than through detached, cerebral activity of planners.
The theme through these studies was not that strategic planning served no purpose, but that its value was not revealed through the quality of the plan. This view was supported by a large in-depth study of the planning processes of organisations throughout the world which found that successful companies used “strategic planning not to generate strategic plans but as a learning tool to create prepared minds within their management teams”.

The role of middle managers

The challenge to the idea that middle managers were merely involved in implementing the strategies developed by senior managers essentially came from the conjunction of three separate ideas. First, as Mintzberg’s principles of “emergent strategy” gained popularity during the 1970s and 80s, the division between formulation and implementation was seen to be a fallacy. Second, the special position of middle managers as the mediators between strategic and day to day working raised arguments that they were best placed to understand issues and recognise problems and opportunities. Third, the role of social interaction in organisations was being recognised and the idea that strategic planning was based in rationality was seen to be a partial view.
A series of studies over the past 20 years has found a positive connection between the involvement of middle managers in strategic planning and increased organisational performance. The discovery that higher performance was associated with middle managers being involved in the thinking as well as the doing led to a significant study which identified four ways that middle managers influenced strategy. They influence upwards through championing alternatives or synthesising information to senior management, or downwards through facilitating adaptability in the organisation, or through the implementation of deliberate strategies. Possibly surprisingly, these studies found that although middle manager involvement contributed to greater understanding of and commitment to the strategy, this was not what led to improved implementation. In fact the causal link was that the influence of middle managers led to better decisions.
Despite the growing acceptance that middle managers influence formulation as well as implementation of strategy, two issues have yet to be explored. First, the actual link, and how this is affected by environmental factors, has still to be studied in detail. Second, it appears that the influence of middle managers has not been universally recognised by practitioners. A large recent study of strategy workshops in UK organisations found that less than half included middle managers.


The source of the link between strategic planning processes and organisational performance remains an unresolved issue. Despite this uncertainty, strategic planning is still an important part of management thinking but its value to policing organisations has never been studied.
Research on strategic planning in the last 30 to 40 years has moved from a focus on the tools and techniques to a consideration of how the practitioners of strategy really act and interact. It is not from looking at the thoughts of the strategist that we will find the source of performance. Rather, we need to study the actions of managers throughout the organisation.
This raises some questions for the police service. Fundamentally, do the findings of the studies outlined above apply to the context of police organisations? Additionally:
• To what extent is the focus of policy and development still at the executive level?
• How is strategy developed in UK police forces and what is the value of the strategic planning processes used?
• What role do middle managers play in the process, and do they have the capabilities necessary?
• To what extent do executive managers have the capabilities to draw out the full strategic value from middle managers?
• Is there a link between the actions of middle managers in the development of strategy and the performance of the force?
• What characteristics of the policing environment impact on the effectiveness of the process?
• How should strategy be managed in policing?

Throughout this paper the term ‘manager’ is used, not to create a distinction with ‘leader’ but as an encompassing term referring to those charged with the responsibility for ensuring the performance of their organisation, or part of it.
For examples, see publications of Henry Mintzberg between 1978 and 1998.
This is quoted from Whittington and Cailluet’s 2007 article in Long Range Planning noting that Bain’s annual survey of organisations found that 80% used strategic planning as their primary strategic tool.
For examples see the works of Ansoff or Andrews in 1960s and 1970s.
The idea of “Upper Echelons Theory” by Hambrick and Mason in 1984 was influential in moving the vocus away from the CEO as the strategist, despite what some biographies in the intervening years would have us believe.
A 2008 study by Zhao, Thurman et al. in the USA was one of the very few pieces of research on strategic planning in police organisations. In the UK the most recent work was the PhD dissertation of Robin Campbell in 1997 which focused strongly on the then RUC.
For evidence of this see the growth of challenge funding, BCU inspections, BCU performance monitoring, partnership working, and speeches of the previous Prime Minister looking for BCU Commander to be entrepreneurs.
See Wooldridge, B., T. Schmid, et al. (2008). The Middle Management Perspective on Strategy Process: Contributions, Synthesis, and Future Research. Journal of Management
For example, Grant talks about “planned emergence” in his significant 2003 paper and Bartlett and Ghoshal talk about “guided evolution”.
For example, Pearce, Freeman et al in 1987 noted, “Given the many variables that have an influence on business unit performance, it seems unrealistic to expect a conceptual model which included one independent variable [ … ] to detect significant differences in any planning relationship.”
For example see Veliyath, R. and S. M. Shortell (1993). Strategic orientation, strategic planning system characteristics and performance. Journal of Management Studies
For a recent example see Ocasio and Joseph’s study of the Spanish Automobile Association in 2008.
Ohmae, K (1982). The Mind of the Strategist. A bestselling work on strategy which is still in print.
For example Langley, A. (1989). In Search of Rationality: The Purposes behind the Use of Formal Analysis in Organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, which found that rational analysis and social interaction are closely linked in decision making
See Mintzberg, H. and J. Q. Hunsicker (1988). “Crafting strategy.” McKinsey Quarterly
See Kaplan, S. and E. D. Beinhocker (2003). “The Real Value of Strategic Planning.” MIT Sloan Management Review
For an early example of this see Burgelman, R (1983). “Corporate Entrepreneurship and Strategic Management: Insights from a Process Study.” Management Science
See Wooldridge, B. and S. W. Floyd (1990). The strategy process, middle management involvement, and organisational performance. Strategic Management Journal, which identified the link and set the basis for the studies
See Wooldridge, B. and S. W. Floyd (1990). The strategy process, middle management involvement, and organisational performance. Strategic Management Journal.
See Hodgkinson, G. P., R. Whittington, et al. (2006). The Role of Strategy Workshops in Strategy Development Processes: Formality, Communication, Co-ordination and Inclusion. Long Range Planning.

Article written by Garry Elliott