Middle Managers.. it depends!

Posted: March 3, 2012 in Biz

Last class, we  brainstormed Politico case study in pairs. Megan and I worked on their experience conveyed by VandeHei who said:

“You give us six stars and six rising stars, and we’ll change the world….”

Commenting on having no middle managerial levels citing the pros & cons of that which i quote as:

Having a staff of equals may be of necessity as a new media corp launches, and it’s not too bad considering is less costly and gets the team members deeply committed in the launch. However, it may lead to personality conflicts between peers of equal stature, shucking off of responsibilities until the last hour.

Rising stars may also promote conflict, as they cannot be depended upon to complete menial tasks that they don’t want to do. Rising stars also do not have sufficient experience to work independently, and existing stars inflate their own competencies at that level of development and apply too high expectations on the inexperienced.

My personal experience is a disaster in this case although we only had the rising stars part. Our team is just assigning the product and adding the polish not originally making it. We were supposed to launch our website to cover the last parliamentary elections in Egypt which was held in three rounds, the first of which was in November. The event was historic and we thought if we can make it by that time, covering this under-served area of Upper Egypt, we would hit it fast!

But, we didn’t plan it well. Our decision to cover the elections over-estimated the journalists working for us. We were too carried away by logistics, shifts planning, generating advertisements, having partnerships and fundraising than actually looking at the core of the job.. quality of the journalism we produce. It was the only thing we were best at and so like Politico, we lately discovered that we don’t have the quality we wanted while our website was designed as if there will be 5 to 6 new stories everyday that should be highlighted. In addition, one partner in the team had some issues with grammar and punctuation which i didn’t know of before.

As you can expect, we couldn’t make it by that time.

When i read about Politico’s experience, it brought to my attention one problem that we did not clearly recognized which is middle managers. We had to have them. And so i added this point to my learning lessons from this failure experience which i largely contributed to, more than my team members, being the founder and manager of the whole project.

What i had in mind is if we could cover the elections well and get in the scene, we can attract advertisers and generate money from corporations (CSR). It was a bet but we only discovered too late that we don’t even have the human capacity that we can bet on. We even got an offer from one of the biggest news portals in Egypt for licensing as they didn’t have the resources that enable them to have good coverage for Upper Egypt. It was a lost opportunity of course.

But sitting with Jeff Jarvis last week, i came to think it isn’t necessarily a problem. It mainly depends on the volume you’re aiming to produce, the scope you’re in and the expectations you put to yourself. In our case and having in mind a dynamic portal being updated throughout the whole day, fed with stories, photos and videos is just a big plan that cannot be accomplished in less than a month with less-qualified journalists, very few equipment (cameras etc) and $2,000 on the table. It was just too big for us.

Jeff made me re-think the starting point. His suggestion was to make the big portal an end goal rather than a starting point given the lack of resources, qualified journalists etc. I’m currently thinking it all over with my team and if we decided to change, we can try the no middle managers strategy again. It can work this time because our scope will be way smaller and much focused. Amen to that.

  1. Dara Sharif says:

    The earlier troubles you describe sound like a case of ending up doing too many things poorly rather than doing just one thing really well, or having a difficult time finding your group’s niche. I think that you are correct in thinking that if you start smaller and focused as you move forward, you will have a greater chance at finding success. Currently, the market is calling for quality news coverage in Upper Egypt. Quality over quantity. The bells and whistles can come later.

  2. s_m_i says:

    I may be misreading, but if you’re changing the scope of the project to make it smaller at launch, why do you need middle managers?

    More specifically, what problems do you want them to solve that you and your cofounders can’t do internally? What do you think their backgrounds should be? Where will you recruit them from? What is your estimated cost saving / efficiency benefit vs their salaries?

    In some cases, the benefits will strongly outweigh the costs. But I’ve also seen both first and second hand the risks of hiring managers without first clearly defining why they’re needed and what their roles will be.

  3. hanansolayman says:

    I’m saying that if i’m rethinking the starting point and turn what i wanted to start with to what i’m planning to end with, then i wouldn’t need middle managers. The problem i faced was that we were trying to do many things at the same time. We were thinking big, which we should, but we also wanted to start big. So can you imagine a big newspaper or media outlet without middle managers? We were trying to be a big institution from the beginning.

    Now, we’re lowering down our expectations. As Dara said, we’re trying to do only one thing really well. And only then, it will be justifiable not to have middle managers.

    I had the same Qs you asked. It’s always pros and cons but it depends on what you’re trying to build, i guess. You cannot have your NY Times version without middle managers.

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