Touching the Forgotten Middle

Transforming a large organization calls for a sweeping strategy and an effective entry point. Susan Schuman, CEO and partner of SYPartners, has long known that the best place to start the process is with the individual. That’s where big impact happens, she says.

After 20 years of helping CEOs and leadership teams navigate significant transformations at companies such as IBM, Starbucks, Ann Inc., SYPartners has gathered some wisdom about how individual people contribute to a thriving organization. To share that wisdom with a wider audience, the San Francisco and New York-based consulting firm last year created a sister company called Unstuck, a mentorship network that brings transformational strategies to everyday people.

The hallmark of the new company is an iPad app that provides users with in-the-moment solutions to help them get “unstuck” from the little habits that hold them back. The app offers more than just personal development content, Schuman points out, because it’s not enough to know why you might be caught in a state of inertia. It’s also important to know how to get out of it.

The Unstuck app delivers productivity tools that assist users in working out some of the kinks in their daily routines—things that block output. Unstuck suggests a more productive system and breaks it down into bite-sized pieces to be tackled one at a time.

The app begins with the premise that getting stuck is not a bad thing—it’s simply what happens to people in life, Schuman says. When we feel incapable of moving forward, we have an opportunity to identify places where we need to grow or change.

“In your pursuit of getting better,” she says, “you’re going to get stuck all along the way. Life is a series of movements to get unstuck.”

Developing the app has led Schuman to think more deeply about the way stuck individuals translate into stuck teams. Conversely, productive and creative individuals make up the great teams that build strong, resilient companies.

Schuman is now spearheading another new enterprise called Teamworks, a host of collaborative tools that helps groups function more efficiently. She says people love to work in teams and to feel as if they are contributing to something bigger than themselves.

“People come to companies for more than just a paycheck—they really do,” Schuman says. “They actually want to understand the purpose of the company. That’s why they do what they do every day.

”Being part of a well-functioning team is central to maintaining a sense of mission, according to Schuman, but people don’t always know how to go about it. It isn’t a process that either happens or it doesn’t. “Great teams don’t come about by chance,” she points out. “They work hard at coming together.”

The Teamworks suite of tools expands the cooperative space where people can connect in an organization. Schuman notes that there are multiple places where this can happen, both online and offline. The idea is to create an experience of internal collaboration that will ultimately drive transformation at scale.

The power of the Teamworks approach is that it reaches into the largest and often most understated population of individuals in a company—the “forgotten middle,” according to Schuman. That is where the lion’s share of people work day in and day out.

“Look at that whole group of people who sit within the middle of an organization. They’re just low enough that they don’t always have access to the things they need, but they’re responsible for carrying out really essential work. ” she says. “They all want to be better, they want to know that what they’re doing is really driving a higher purpose. What would happen if we reignited that group, gave them a set of tools that would allow them to be better together?”

Touching that forgotten middle means helping them maximize cooperation and efficiency in the everyday spaces where they interact. This frees them up to see some purpose in what they do.

It can be purpose with a little “p,” she says. But it is a series of little p’s that keep people working together to make their organizations great: “If everybody has a shared belief about what they’re doing and where the company is going, then the company can go and do great things.”