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Change Management

The Magic In the Middle

I don’t know where I first heard that phrase, or what it originally meant, but I have been using it a lot in the last few weeks …

Consider the entire potential population for any new idea, process, product, or system. You can generalize everyone into three Pareto-inspired groups …

  • Top 20% – The folks who “get it”, and have the brains, the interest, and the desire to fully understand the new idea / process / product / system, and get the most benefit out of it. In Pareto terms, the 20% that get 80% of the value.
  • Bottom 20% – The “hopeless”; those that just don’t get the concept (and need constant handholding), have no interest in making any change to their norm (at best, they will have someone do it for them), and no desire to expand their horizons and learn something new. In Pareto terms, the 20% that cause 80% of the problems.
  • Middle 60% – aka “everybody else”. This is the group that could get value out of the idea / process / product / system, but need more handholding, guided learning, and/or managerial promises (threats) to commit to learning how to use and apply the “new thing”.

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I call this last group “the magic in the middle”; these are the people you need to win over to ensure success for the initiative. Most projects would be considered a failure if they only got 20% of their target audience to realize the promised value – then again, no one expects 100% success, especially with the bottom 20% of folks that will Just Never Get It. So, the make-or-break “target market” for training and retention is the “magic in the middle” – the folks who need a reasonable level of vision, communication, documentation, training, and follow up to get things to work.

Note that “magic” refers to the idea that what really differentiates success – that core region of 60% – is the make-or-break group that takes the extra effort. It’s not good enough that (say) your top product managers understand the potential of digital products and services – the middle folks that need more handholding and examples are the ones that need your attention. It’s not good enough that your top engineers and data scientists understand the new methods and can catch early-adopters – the bigger chunk of your team, with solid tech backgrounds but fewer change management and communication skills, need guidance to make sure these ideas can scale to fit the huge potential market out there.

Interesting Observation

This is one of the core reasons why external comparisons are tough on traditional marketing & product development teams. How many times have people in old-line businesses been asked for projects as flexible, ubiquitous, user friendly, and high quality as Instagram, Amazon, and gMail? Or tried to address internal communication and collaboration challenges with tools like Facebook, Twitter, and Slack? Why do folks look at highly funded, highly target-marketed sites / products, and cynically wonder why their internal teams can’t turn over requests with the same level of speed and quality?

One key reason – those sites only need to go after the Top 5% group of focused, engaged, and technically-able potential consumers. Why? Because the internet is so big, and there is plenty of money to be made from such a small percentage of the total user population. Unfortunately for most businesses, it is not OK to implement ideas, processes, and systems that are effective for only 20% of the target market – expectations are more like 50-80% of the team / market needs to be reasonably glib to be judged effective.

… but What Does It Mean?

Your teams must go after the “middle” group – the 60 percent of your target audience that needs a lot more TLC to understand and be effective in the ideas, processes, products, and systems you provide.

However, I call it “magic” for a reason. You can leverage a lot of value once you realize that “the magic is in the middle”:

  • Training: When you understand the low-end expectations for competence in your target audience, you can develop your training material at that level – and no lower.
  • Testing for 100% of all cases is exhausting and time consuming, a real drain on resources. However, only testing the basics (the Top 20%) won’t require a lot of rigor; error checks are simplistic and the level of scrutiny is much higher. If you want to do an acceptable amount of decent quality testing, your test cases should involve “the magic in the middle”.
  • Vendors: Bringing them in for a demo? Salesmen typically target business scenarios that are the “low hanging fruit” (in the Top 20%), and it’s easy to understand when we can’t handle the “worst case scenario” (the Bottom 20%); get the sales team to demo something from “a typical Day In the Life” (the Middle 60%)

The Top 20% group is the easiest to service, and the Bottom 20% is the easiest to ignore. The magic is in the middle, and success here separates the excellent from the also-rans.

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