Designing movement or insurrection?

Various factors converged during the week to prompt my thinking on mentoring Millennials – an age group of the population roughly defined as those being born around 1980. The RSA Journal that I get had three articles on this generation in one copy:

  • Restless, bylined with, "Owen Jones writes that highly creative but deeply frustrated, young people today have the potential to make or break our society's future."
  • Portrait of a Generation which notes that 'fourteen years ago, a UK-wide survey identified self-determination and entrepreneurial ambition as the core characteristics of the so-called Millennial Generation. Today, against a much tougher economic backdrop, how do the views of young people compare with those of their predecessors?'
  • A Time for Heroes reports that "What begins to emerge is a picture of a [Millennial] generation that is more comfortable with taking risks and whose appetite for enterprise is both driven and hampered by economic circumstance. Through research, engagement and practical innovation, the RSA's project seeks to understand how we can harness and enhance this promise and capabilities and the contribution they will make to pulling us out of the current crisis. As Tapscott argues, unless we understand the Net Geners, we cannot begin to understand the future or how they can shape our world."

Then as I was preparing for my IFMA talk next week on communicating change I came across a three minute video from the Advisory Group on leadership in times of flux. Suggesting that leaders need much the sort of skills that Millenninials tend to have.

My own research on this group (part of my TEDX Future of Work talk) threw up more points on Millennials and leading in chaos:

  • Most organizations which have performance management systems, job descriptions, career paths, grades, older senior people, expectations around level in the hierarchy (even while some described themselves as 'flat' organizations) all leave Millennials feeling alienated. One said to me the other day "I've reached the point that I just going to come in to work, do a job, and take my talents and skills into a side business where I can feel in charge of my own destiny."
  • Millennials are juggling insane demands on their personal lives – in the US particularly they tend to have huge student loan debt. Across the western world they may be looking for a committed relationship, rearing young children, be looking after older parents, be trying to get a foot in the housing market, and so on. A couple of months ago Bagehot in the Economist wrote a telling piece on Generation Xhausted in which he says "Researchers of well-being have established a fairly clear pattern, across different cultures and countries, in which happiness dips in the 30s and 40s before recovering in the 50s.
  • At the same time as these 30 somethings are bearing the brunt of life stress they are also trying to advance their ability to either move up a conventional up-the-career-ladder and/or earn enough money to support themselves through their final third of life (now in the age range of 60 – 90+). This adds to their stress for, as Bagehot says, "Like a middle-distance athlete on a bend, anyone who wants to run something in his 40s needs to position himself for supremacy a decade earlier. In a big company, that might mean taking charge of a division or a region."

But 'positioning for supremacy' is a whole endlessly changing ball game for both organizations and individuals as they operate less in fairly stable situations and more in chaos. Chaos being like the weather, which you can, at times, predict well for the next 15 days or at other times can only forecast for a couple of days, or at other times can't even predict the next two hours.

This leading in a time of chaos is also discussed in two Fast Company articles. The first This Is Generation Flux: Meet The Pioneers Of The New (And Chaotic) Frontier Of Business.
The second Secrets of the Flux Leader argues well the case for very different forms of leadership and organization designs based around managing paradoxes like "efficiency and openness, thrift and mind-blowing ambition, nimbleness and a workplace that fosters creativity".

SIDEBAR The article also repeats the reassuring (to me anyway) notion that Generation Flux describes the people who will thrive best in this environment [of chaos]. "It is a psychographic, not a demographic–you can be any age and be GenFlux. "

During this reading and research period I met with some Millennials to forward an idea I'd had following one of them sending me an article How the economy upended young architects' hopes. This article talks about people who graduated from architecture schools in 2006/2007 and working in architecture firms feeling for the most part, as one reported "underutilized, underpaid, underappreciated, undervalued, and invisible most of the time."

Knowing that the company I work for has many Millennial employees and being curious as to whether they are feeling this frustration I suggested that we meet with them to talk about the issues including how do we help the organization recognize that Millennials are potentially current and certainly future leaders in times of flux/chaos, and how do we help Millennials change the traditional organization and use the talents they bring. I got an interesting response back, "I'm not sure how widespread the issue is among young[er] designers. I also am not clear how we could have a healthy group discussion without fostering insurrection."

So now I am beginning to see a cycle that looks something like this:

  • Traditionally led organizations that are not rapidly adapting their mindsets, systems, processes, expectations to develop leaders for chaos, are likely to fail.
  • Working with Millennials to develop organizational leading in chaos skills is not going to be easy for senior people who don't grasp the need to lead differently, or don't want to, and who might be hanging on to their own jobs as they now have to work more years than they thought they would have to.
  • Millennials who can't show what they're capable of because the existing systems preclude it, and because they are stressed by all kinds of other life things, will become presenteeists in order to keep a job when it's so difficult to find one. To raise questions about the traditional way of doing things might lead to "insurrection" (involvement in which I'm assuming is seen as a career limiter).
  • Millennials who have the circumstances in which they can be entrepreneurial, self-employed and creative (the type of people who can lead through chaos) will leave established organizations which will then fail. (Rendering other Millennials employed in those companies jobless).

What to do? I've been pondering this on my various running outings during the week. My current thoughts are as follows:

  • To design, with a range of age group representatives, a mentoring scheme that addresses both the traditionals and the Millennials and develops both their abilities, by learning from each other, to lead in chaos, without either groups feeling threatened. But this feels a somewhat traditional and counter chaos approach.
  • To design a meeting on the topic "Movement or insurrection: how do we make our mark in the organization?" open only to Millennials, or maybe held in a location and at a background noise level that would deter traditionalists, as a subtle way of not contravening the diversity policy. But that would exclude me and I want to be involved in what they come up with. Also in my organization the bulk of the people are at one site but there are others at other sites. How would we include them in the discussion?
  • To open an all-company hackathon on the topic of how to start a movement to develop leaders for flux from the Millennial generation. The hackathon would take much the same form as the MIX did with Getting Performance without Performance Management. The aim there was to "lead a conversation about what should replace performance management in a Management 2.0 world. How do we replace the "control" that the term performance management implies with something better?" That hackathon was held between September 21 and October 22 and seems to have some good suggestions.

SIDEBAR: Windows 7 Word does not recognize 'hackathon'. I wonder if it is included in the Windows 8 dictionary.

I'm leaning towards the third idea and will consult with my Millennial colleagues on how to set it up. If you have other ideas on the topic I'd love to hear them.