A lot has been written about the Millennial generation in the last ten years or so, and to be frank, much of it is distracting, at best. The research that is cited is usually fairly accurate—that’s not the problem. The problem is that each new article on Millennials is trying to teach us how to “deal with” this generation. It may have a positive spin (the Millennials are a harbinger of the future!), or it may have a negative spin (can you believe the kids these days?!), but it’s still about us (you know, the “normal” people) needing to deal with them.
We’d like to change this conversation, and we’ll start by focusing less on them and a little more on you and your organization. Consider the following questions:
Do you have close to 100% staff engagement? By this we mean, do you have a place where nearly all of your staff are continuously giving extra effort. They LOVE working there. They may not be perfect, but you don’t have to spend any time figuring out ways to motivate them just to get stuff done. They all get tons of stuff done because working there is just so integral to their lives and who they are. They say things like “I can’t imagine working somewhere else,” or “I remember when I used to work for X, and I will NEVER go back to an organization like that again.”
Do you encourage “positive” turnover? And not just the obvious poor performers who won’t be around long anyway—we mean, are you actively moving people out if they are toxic, overly negative, or a bad fit for your culture? Or do you keep them around because you’re afraid of the knowledge they’ll take with them? And even the “good” ones—are you okay with them leaving if they want to explore other options, knowing that they will probably come back a few months later once they see how great your workplace is compared to others?
Could you charge a lot more and still keep your members and customers? In other words, is the quality and value of what you provide so exceptional, that you can charge significantly more than your competitors, but have customers line up anyway?
We assume most of you are answering “no” to these questions, so it may surprise you to find out that there are organizations out there who can answer yes. We found four of them to serve as case studies in our new book, but you also hear about them in the press—companies like Zappos, Nordstrom, Valve, and others who serve as our shining examples of awesomeness to which we aspire.
But the problem with the press coverage is that it leaves us all a very convenient excuse when it comes to actually creating a more awesome organization: yeah, but we’re not them. We don’t have the resources of Zappos, or we’re not in the same business as Valve, or we don’t have the same products as Nordstrom. There is always a reason that we can’t do what the “cool kids” have done. And to some extent, that is true. You’re not them, and you should never be seduced by the siren’s call of “best practices.” This is not about copying, it’s about creating a truly great organization. It’s going to take some hard work and some clarity about how organizations become so awesome in the first place.
And wouldn’t it be great if there were some sort of manual that would explain that to the rest of us? Clearly looking at the shining examples is not enough, but imagine there was a place you could go that would teach you how to create organizations with absurdly high employee engagement, turnover that’s mostly the good kind, and the ability to charge more without hurting sales.
Well there is, and believe it or not, it’s the Millennial generation. If you want a strong culture that puts you light years ahead of your competition, then you must be willing to learn from the Millennials.
That’s not to say the Millennials themselves have all the answers, or even that we all need to be like them or try to make them happy in our organizations. That’s not the point. In fact, most of the amazing organizations that we have found via the press or through our case study research were founded by and/or are currently led by Boomers and GenX’ers. But they created organizations that made sense to Millennials. The Millennials grew up with a particular mix of influences that is making them our “secret decoder ring” to show us how we need to change to succeed in today’s uniquely turbulent environment. It’s not about making Millennials happy—it’s about creating organizations that succeed for everyone in today’s reality.
In our new book, When Millennials Take Over: Preparing for the Ridiculously Optimistic Future of Business, we studied both Millennials and organizations with very strong cultures, and pulled out four key organizational capacities that put these organizations out in a class by themselves:
The companies we found with ridiculously strong cultures had built these capacities into the heart of their operations and philosophies, and the Millennials we spoke to could not understand why these capacities were not woven into every organization to begin with. Not everything about these ideas is particularly new—the push for more transparency inside organizations has been around for decades, for example—but there are unique applications of each of these capacities that specifically align with what is needed in today’s context.
Digital is about perpetual and exponential improvement of all facets of organizational life using both the tools and the mindsets of the digital world. Note that it is as much about the mindset as it is about the technology. The digital mindset puts users (which includes employees) first, even if it is harder on the organization, and it demands agility and continuous improvement. And our case study for this capacity, believe it or not, is a small nonprofit association (the American Society for Surgery of the Hand) who not only invests in digital technology, but they actually designed their organizational workspace around the needs of the employees, rather than around the needs of the senior management, reflecting the digital mindset.
Clear is about making information and data more visible (particularly internally) in order to generate better decisions. Traditional management asks the top of the organization to determine who “needs to know” before information is disseminated, but that doesn’t work in a fast-paced, networked world. When things are more visible, you need fewer meetings—and maybe even fewer managers—and you still get better decisions. Our case study for clear is a software company (Menlo Innovations) that is so transparent, they work in pairs so that every line of code can be reviewed and evaluated, as it is being typed on the screen.
Fluid is about expanding and distributing power in a dynamic and flexible way. We all like to complain about hierarchy, but in our research we discovered that the problem with hierarchy is not in its verticalness, but in its rigidity. Fluid organizations have created systems where decision-making authority morphs based on a clearer understanding of what drives the success of the enterprise, rather than what the leaders were thinking when they created the org chart so many years ago. Our case study for fluid is Quality Living Incorporated, a healthcare organization (an industry more known for rigid hierarchy) that empowers those who know the most about the patient to make decisions and drive action, regardless of their place in the hierarchy.
Fast is about the ability to leap ahead, particularly in a new direction, when the situation calls for it. It’s more than improved productivity or efficiency—we’ve been mastering that over the last 100 years. It’s about achieving the speed you can only get when you let go of control. Truly fast organizations learn where they can put their trust in order to achieve this kind of speed. Our case study for fast (again, perhaps surprisingly) is a bank–Happy State Bank in Happy, Texas–that has managed to soundly beat its competitors in the speed of its loan application process without increasing risk or making bad loans.
And remember, these case study organizations are NOT presented as best practices for you to copy. They are all simply reflecting a new way of running organizations that is being articulated by the Millennial generation. The Millennials grew up with a unique combination of societal influences–the social internet, abundance, diversity, and an elevated status of children—that has produced a generation that naturally assumes that clear, fluid, digital, and fast is how organizations should be run. And it is really just an accident of history that they are seeing this at a time when big societal trends, including the social internet but also the decline of traditional management, is demanding innovation in the way we lead and manage our organizations. And remember, the Millennial generation also happens to be the largest generation in the history of the United States. They are about to become the largest segment of the workforce, even though they are all under 40 years old. And older Millennials are not “kids” – they are in their early thirties, and have been in the workforce for 10 years and know what they are doing.
Change is coming, folks. It’s time we started worrying less about how to be relevant and more about how to lead the impending revolution in business that has really already begun. Whatever you think of the Millennials, you should at least be willing to learn from them. As we move forward, the successful organizations will abandon the conversation about how to “deal with” this new generation and will focus on how they can help us all understand (and create) what the future of business will look like.
Want to know more? Get the book.