02/11/2011

By Ty Kiisel, Manager of Social Outreach at AtTask

I’m a big fan of the young people I work with. Except for the fact that I’m a 50-something guy who rides a Harley rather than a 20-something guy that rides a bullet bike, I don’t think there’s a real generation gap among my colleagues. Of course there are some age-related differences, but for the most part they are minor things less associated with work and more related to fashion and other personal preferences.

On those rare occasions when us grey-hairs get together and discuss our younger colleagues (who outnumber us in my organisation), we talk about the contagious nature of their passion and energy. In fact, I think we universally agree that the young people we work with keep us on top of our game. The luxury of sitting back and resting on our laurels just isn’t an option around here.

The Millennial Generation sometimes gets a bad rap for being overly ambitious and unwilling to pay their dues. I agree they are a pretty ambitious bunch–but so was/am I. In reality, with the exception of one very important thing, I don’t think they are really that much different than my friends and I were when we entered the workforce. A friend of mine recently suggested, “Younger workers simply don’t know that things are impossible or that they should take longer. Think back 25 years–you were just as productive when you didn’t have experience and a well-honed sense of what battles are no longer worth fighting to weigh you down.”

I don’t disagree with her assessment, but I do believe that the Millennial Generation does have something that I certainly didn’t have when I joined the workforce 30 years ago.

This generation of young people has grown up with the very technology we are trying to leverage to get work done. My IBM Selectric typewriter was the most technologically advance piece of equipment I had. They’ve been collaborating in teams since they were in elementary school, and are probably the most empowered generation to ever enter the workforce.

They may not have acquired “…a well-honed sense of what battles are no longer worth fighting to weigh them down,” but if we don’t take advantage of this incredibly talented pool of resources we’ll be making a big mistake. Saying that, I’m not suggesting that the contributions of those who came before them are of less value. My friend suggested, “Each generation takes the work of the previous generation and extends it in ways that their predecessors didn’t see because their mental model didn’t leave room for making the connection. The key here isn’t assuming they (the Millennials) are somehow ‘different-different’, but acknowledging where they are different and giving them opportunities to make leaps forward based on their mental models.”

Doug Stites of the Lansing State Journal recently wrote, “Young, talented workers have fresh points of view and learn about progressive ways to make business better. They can offer newer and more innovative business practices, agenda-setting theories, issue attention cycles, crisis management and the top social media tactics needed to market your company.”

I have to agree with Mr. Stites. Something else he suggests also resonates with me, “[L]earn about their work styles. Younger generations are focused on quicker, more efficient ways of completing tasks. This translates into the workforce in positive ways.”

On numerous occasions I have literally been blown away by what members of my team are able to accomplish when given the opportunity to contribute at a higher level. There’s a lot we can learn from our younger colleagues and as Stites suggests, we should give “…these young workers the credit they deserve for handling substantial responsibilities.”

A New Approach for a New Generation
I wonder if we have mislabeled this generation. Shouldn’t we really be calling them the Collaboration Generation? Between Facebook, Twitter, instant messages, text messages, cell phones and other portable digital devices, this group is connected. They update their personal status multiple times each day, they tell each other where they’re going to lunch and check in via Gowalla or Four Square while they’re there. Savvy business leaders will incorporate this collaborative lifestyle into how they communicate with and lead their organisations.

Leveraging a more social media-like approach to managing projects and leading teams does not imply that incorporating Twitter or Facebook into the project management process is a good idea. In fact, I’m not an advocate of that. I am a proponent of implementing something Twitter-like or Facebook-like into the workplace. Leveraging what we’ve learned from social media and successfully incorporating it into conversations about tasks, issues, projects and other work will evolve our way of communicating with a metaphor that is easily understood and embraced by the workforce. What’s more, it will allow business leaders to capture all the qualitative information they really need to inform decisions.

Earlier this year someone, who for lack of a better word can only be described as a Luddite, confronted me as pandering to the younger generation. “Why should we change the way we communicate with each other because the newest, least senior members of the organisation have their smart phones glued to the hip? We’ve been doing this for a while and the way we’re doing it works.”

In my opinion, this is a shortsighted position to take. Social media is so ubiquitous today that it just makes sense to use as a metaphor for communication and collaboration. Part of communication is adapting styles to appropriately suit the audience. Leveraging technology and social media’s ability to encourage dialog and capture status just makes sense to me. Otherwise I guess we could all go back to scratching pictures into walls with rocks.

Just Say “No” to Command-And-Control
I question whether or not a heavy-handed top-down management model ever really worked for motivating an employee long term–but it is an epic fail when applied to the current generation. As project leaders, we should be looking for ways to empower the team with some autonomy over timelines, deliverables and collaboration partners. “Chaos!” you say? You might just be surprised.

I have discovered that when I present a problem to my team and give them an opportunity to work through a solution on their own, they usually come up with innovative and creative ways of solving problems that I might not have come up with myself. If given the opportunity, team members will take ownership of their individual responsibilities and work harder and do more than they would ever do for a few bucks. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “The best executive is one who has sense enough to pick good people to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”

I think this also applies to how we organise and lead project teams.

Engaging the team will be one of the biggest challenges project leaders face in the coming years. Understanding what makes them tick and how best to create an environment where they take ownership of their responsibilities, participate at a higher level and create the next generation of products that have the potential to change the world should be our mission.