Agitate: On Being the Unfrozen Middle

Whenever we talk about innovation in the Air Force, we inevitably end up stumbling upon that familiar old trope of “The Frozen Middle”, which approximately describes the theory of “middle-status conformity”, in which those mid-tier leaders with enough power to enable or impede innovation for the majority are incentivized to remain risk-averse by their long-earned status and the ease with which it could be lost if they fail to enforce norms.

I’ve seen a lot of thoughtful takes on this problem, ranging from ‘the frozen middle doesn’t exist’ to ‘we’re all the frozen middle’ and everything in between. There’s value to be gained from many different perspectives. Most of these treatments focus on what leaders can do to ‘thaw’ their frozen middle. As an NCO, I think I could consider myself fairly well ‘stuck in the middle’ (depending on your perspective) and it occurred to me recently that I have a pretty simple philosophy around preventing cultural crystallization within my immediate vicinity.

What if we think of the whole “frozen middle” thing in terms of the actual physics of temperature and liquids freezing? A drop in temperature really just describes particles moving at a slower rate. At a certain temperature, they settle into low-energy states in the form of crystals. 

So as a particle myself, there’s a straightforward solution to this problem, facilitated by the fact that, unlike a water molecule, I have sentience, autonomy, and little respect for social mores:

I agitate. 

I talk, question, describe my experience and work out loud, to serve as a conduit, connector, questioner, to stir up the ideas that lay at rest around me and to explore what else could possibly be–all in spite of laws of physics that would rather have me still and silent, preserving calories for movements deemed prudent. My particular gyrations are in and of themselves the generation of heat, and while it thaws the crystalline bonds holding tightly together those that surround me, heat is also a powerful catalyst for mutation and evolution.

Settling into low-energy, crystallized, locked-in states is something we tend to do as a trained habit, indoctrinated into us in a culture in which efficiency is of the utmost importance. This is how we end up with hierarchically straight-jacketed organizations, like insecure eccentrics clinging to precise mealtime routines that generously feed the domesticated lions of norm-enforcement and throw only scraps to the feral stray kittens of innovation pitifully mewling outside.

What we and our institutions consistently fail to recognize is the power of necessary inefficiencies – those heat-generating habits of motion analogous to aimlessly meandering, to wildly gesticulating, gracefully dancing, and throwing the occasional flailing tantrum.

But even without the institutional buy-in that might more broadly facilitate regular sessions of conceptually disruptive hot-coal-flinging or the purifying blowtorch of enabling everyday creativity, we as individuals do have it in us to be singular little sources of heat, simply by squirming, by shifting, by staying frantic. 

And this is why I write.

It’s how I agitate.

3 thoughts on “Agitate: On Being the Unfrozen Middle

  1. Excellent definition of the ‘frozen middle’ and I like the ‘cultural crystallization’ description. I am working on a presentation concerning the impact of the frozen middle on innovation, particularly in Air Force acquisitions. I’ll be referencing both of these.

    Thanks, Chad

    Like

  2. I hadn’t heard of it referred to as the frozen middle, but what you describe was accurate in my career, both AF and afterward. In fact I wrote a book about it! Leadership: A View From The Middle.

    Liked by 1 person

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