Unleashing your Gen Y’s Innovative Instincts

September 20, 2010

I’ve recently had an article entitled “Unleashing your Gen Yer’s Innovative Instincts” published in the Cutter Benchmark Review.  You can get a complementary download by entering the promotional code referenced on : http://www.cutter.com/offers/changingworkforce.html



Helping your Gen Y’s Resolve Ambiguity – A 7-Step Process

August 28, 2010

According to the Webster’s College Dictionary, ambiguity is “doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention.”  In a business sense, it’s lack of clarity.  How many times have we, as managers, assigned projects or tasks without 100% clarity?  Often!

Back in a grad school “Career Decision Making Skills” class, we took a test devised by Jay Lorsch and John Morse that measured our predisposition for solitude, preference for autonomy, and tolerance for ambiguity.  My results were that I liked some solitude and that autonomy in my work was important to me.  However, my lack of tolerance for ambiguity was off the chart.  Earlier in my career, whenever I was frustrated by a job, I’d assess those three areas to see what was bugging me.  More often than not, it was the ambiguity.

While some Gen Y’s may love the freedom and open-endedness of the ambiguous assignment, most of the students and client employees I see today become paralyzed by it.  Because of my predisposition, I immediately recognize and sympathise with them.  Gen Y’s are amazing at going from 1 to 2 to 3 to 4 on several projects concurrently.  But they’re not generally as strong at going from 0 to 1 in starting a task with little process or guidance. 

For the most part, Gen Y’s don’t like ambiguity for three reasons.  First, parents and teachers have been providing razor sharp clarity through their upbringing.  Much of the background “0 to 1” work has already been done for them when Gen Y’s start a new task.  So they have little experience with floundering a bit.  Second when they do flounder, helicopter parents and (often overly helpful) teachers step in quickly to resolve the lack of clarity, rather than encourage or force the child to struggle through the ambiguity and think for him/herself.  Third, in the minds of Gen Y, floundering wastes time and doesn’t get things crossed off the list.  Gen Y’s are all about efficiency and time management.  Time in which nothing gets “done” and projects don’t move forward is extremely frustrating for this busy, ever multi-tasking group.

So today’s Gen Y’s early in their careers are hit by a double whammy.  By temperament, their approach to efficiency and making every minute count doesn’t leave room to appreciate the tangled assignment mess that requires quiet analysis and critical thinking.  Besides, whenever they were “stuck” someone has always swooped in to help them before they “wasted too much time.”

Now they enter today’s fast paced, lean organizations where there is even more ambiguity than in years past.  This may be especially true in smaller businesses that haven’t created a lot of process and business models.  Managers don’t just manage, but have their own projects.  The pace of business is accelerated and more work is expected to be accomplished, often before true objectives and boundaries have become clearly defined.  For a manager to think through every nuance of a project assignment isn’t always feasible.  It just takes too long.  Providing that level of background work can also reduce the creativity and critical thinking experience that great managers want their young talent to gain.

Then, the push back comes.  Because Gen Y’s are accustomed to having the adults in their lives provide background and clarity, the moment they get stuck, they resent the manager who makes them work it out for themselves.  You may then hear (or overhear) “I waste so much time because my boss won’t explain what s/he wants.”  “My boss doesn’t care about my productivity”  “As soon as the economy improves, I’m going to look for a new job with a manager who is more supportive.”

You may find yourself wondering, aren’t Gen Y’s the ones who have such a strong innovative and entrepreneurial spirit?  So why don’t they embrace these types of open-ended assignments in the work place?  Well, consider that there’s a difference between creating something of your own vision and creating something on behalf of someone else.  Working within others’ expectations can create higher levels of ambiguity.

So, as a manager, what do you do?

Some projects are assigned with great clarity, “Here’s the problem we’re experiencing.  Here’s the outcome I’m looking for.  Do this, this and this to solve it.  Go!”

But other assignments are simply “Go solve this.”  No steps, just “Go!”  As a manager, you often don’t have time to think through steps, and you want to give your young talent the opportunity to be creative and figure it out for themselves.  You know that they need that experience to learn and grow.  You also know they’ll take great satisfaction from resolving the ambiguity themselves and from surviving the struggle.  You may need to be the “bad guy” for not just giving them the answer.  But, you also know that giving them the time to flounder is often the best gift you can provide to help your young talent grow into strong, well rounded business professionals.

So, instead of resolving the ambiguity for your Gen Y employees, give them a model for how to resolve it themselves.  Remind them that resolving ambiguity is an important skill in their professional development.  You may need to guide and support their first time through.  But they’ll be doing the critical thinking on their own.

Resolving Ambiguity – A 7-Step Process

Step 1 – Why are you doing this project?
When you start working on a project that is unclear, you need to figure out the difference between what you do know and what you don’t.  Even though everything about the assignment may seem blurry, take a moment and you’ll realize that you know more than you think you do.

The first thing you need to be ABSOLUTELY sure of is the objective.  You can’t make good choices about a project if you don’t truly understand its purpose.  Even if your manager hasn’t thought through the project’s steps, s/he must know what problem is being solved or what opportunity is being leveraged.  You must know what your efforts are intended to accomplish.  If you do, great.  If you don’t, STOP.  Request another conversation with your manager.  You’re not asking what you should do, you’re clarifying the project or assignment’s purpose.  Try some of the following questions to get that conversation going:

  • What do you want this project to achieve? 
  • What problem are we solving?
  • What will be different after this project is accomplished?
  • Describe the perfect world after this project has been successfully completed.

Listen carefully, not just to the words, but also to the underlying wishes.  While your manager is talking you may be tempted to start thinking about solutions.  Fight that temptation.  Now is the time to be sure you’re clear on the project’s purpose and desired outcomes.  Deciding how to move forward will happen soon enough.

Step 2 – Find the Lines
Once you’re sure you understand the project’s objective, create a list of the “givens” and then a list of the things you’re not sure of.  Every project will have boundaries and the sooner you lock those in, the sooner the project will feel less ambiguous.  Do you know the:

  •  budget
  •  deadline
  •  staff who are available to work on the project with you
  •  audience for your effort
  •  etc.

 Then carefully think through the assumptions you are making.  List them.  Try to come up with at least 10 assumptions to be sure you are seeing all your preconceived ideas.  It’s likely that there are assumptions you’re making without even realizing it.  To help you, complete sentences such as the following:
      We absolutely must ____________________________
      We absolutely cannot ___________________________
      ___________________________________ is off limits
      “Joe” refuses to work with “Sam”

Once you have your list, step back and look carefully at each assumption.  Are there issues or positions that you consider givens and potential roadblocks that are not as cast in stone as you believe they are?  What are your good assumptions, inaccurate assumptions and questionable assumptions that require confirmation?

Once you work through this process, the project will start to become less ambiguous and daunting.  You’ll now understand the desired outcome and some of the project boundaries and givens.  Don’t get frustrated that you haven’t “done” anything yet.  You may not realize it, but you have.

Step 3 – Look around
Very few projects in an organization are completely new, where nothing like this has ever been done before.  Check around.  See if you can find earlier, successful projects that share common characteristics with the one you’re currently working on.  Find the project owner and ask questions such as:

  •  How did you approach this?
  •  What were some of the smart things you did?
  •  If you had it to do over, what would have done differently?
  •  What are some of the hidden project pitfalls?
  •  What are some of the hidden organizational pitfalls?
  •  Who else should I talk to?

 These conversations will not only give you perspective towards resolving your project’s ambiguity, but they will also provide a great opportunity to expand your network within your organization.

Step 4 – Create a vision and define a conceptual plan
By now you know your project’s purpose, have some boundaries, have detailed your assumptions, and have broadened your experience set by talking to others.  You still may not know exactly what you have to do or how to do it, but it’s time to put a stake in the ground.  You need to create your vision for the project.  As you do this, you may find that there are multiple ways to approach your project.  Narrow your list to no more than three approaches.

Putting together a presentation will help you lock in your thinking.  Create the following sections / slides as a starting point.  You will also want to add other sections that are relevant to your specific project.

  •  Objective
  •  Boundaries
  •  Assumptions (Note that not all the assumptions on your list should be discussed publicly.)
  • Strategy / Approach
  • Strengths & Weaknesses Analysis (of your single or multiple proposed approaches)
  •  Expected Results

 Step 5 – Share your vision as a “Strawman” proposal
A “strawman” proposal is purposefully intended to generate discussion and directional input, rather than seeking approval or disapproval.  This is the perfect framing for your discussion, since your plan will not be completely fleshed out and this is simply concept clarification. 

This conversation could be formal or informal depending upon the scope and complexity of your project.  If you and your manager determine that there are other stakeholders who should participate in this conversation, you may want to recruit a colleague to take detailed notes.  That way you can completely focus on the conversation.

Be sure to pre-plan discussion questions through your presentation.  For example:

  •  Objective – Is this accurate?
  •  Boundaries – Are these accurate?  What boundaries am I missing?
  •  Assumptions – Are these good assumptions?  Are there other facets I should be considering?
  •  Strategy / Approach with strengths and weaknesses assessment – Do you think this will be
      effective?  (If multiple approaches, present all.  Which approach do you recommend and why?)
  •  Expected Results – Is this sufficient?  Is this feasible? 

Through the session, listen carefully and don’t get defensive if your vision is off track.  Remember that the purpose of this session is ambiguity resolution, not approval. 

Thank the participants for their input.

Keep in mind that running this type of session is also great experience and exposure!

Step 6 – Redefine
Now that you’ve gotten feedback, the ambiguity should be melting from the project.  Clarify your project’s purpose, select a strategy, and define the tactics necessary to complete your project.  Confirm with you manager and key stakeholders that you’re on the right track.

Step 7 – Go! 
But remember, with projects that start with a great deal of ambiguity, things may shift mid-stream.  Provide frequent status updates to key stakeholders to be sure you’re still on track and that things haven’t changed in the outer world, while you’re focused on your project’s inner world.  You’re not necessarily asking for feedback with each update.  You’re just keeping stakeholders aware of the path you’re on in case there’s information that should be shared with you.

Successfully completing your first project that simply had “Go!” as its marching orders, will give you the confidence that you can work effectively through ambiguity.  You may never fully embrace ambiguity, but you will know you can tolerate it and be successful within that environment.

The Gift of Undivided Attention

December 13, 2009

As we head into this holiday season, it’s time to start thinking about gifts – big gifts, small gifts, expensive gifts, cheap gifts, obligatory gifts and thoughtful gifts.   Perhaps one of the most thoughtful gifts of all, is one that doesn’t cost a thing.

Doesn’t it seem like undivided attention is going the way of the dinosaur?

Several months ago, I was introduced to a writer/consultant by a colleague who thought we’d have good information and contacts to share.  It turned out we were both in NY at the same time, so we met for a drink in a small, trendy bar outside of Grand Central Station.  After a comfortable and informative introduction, he mentioned that their family’s new nanny was starting that day and we shared stories about kids and their care givers.  In the 90 minutes that we spoke, he took several phone calls about the nanny and some business dealings that were time critical.  The calls were fairly short, and he answered each call apologetically.  I wasn’t angry or insulted, but I was uncomfortable as I just sat there while he was on the phone.  I found it embarrassing to be doing nothing while waiting for his phone conversation to end.  I eventually pulled out my notebook and started writing as each new call began.  I know he meant no offense at all by taking these calls, and I did understand why they were a higher priority than our conversation.  The reason I understand this so well is because I can’t even count the number of times I’ve done this to someone else.

The other day, my son wanted to show me how a marble went through his very elaborate marble run.  “Look, Mommy, look!” he implored until I turned away from my email  to look at his structure.  He let the marble go.  I watched for a moment.  Then, without even knowing I did it, I turned back to my email.  When the marble landed at the end, he said, “Wasn’t that great?”  “It was!” I responded.  Then he said, “I’m going to do it again, and this time you actually have to look.”  Busted!  I couldn’t seem to tear myself away from email for the minute it took for the marble to go through that run.

Before you think I’m a terrible parent, I should mention that he does the same thing to me.  We’ll be riding in the car having a conversation, and the next thing I know, he’s playing with the GPS. “I was talking to you,” I said.  And he responded, “I know, I was listening.”  Then I said, “You weren’t listening, you were playing.”  And he responded, “I was listening enough.”

That “enough” got me thinking:

When my students use their laptops during class, and I know they’re not all taking notes, are they listening enough? 

When business people  in a group meeting with laptops open are listening with one part of the brain, but composing an email with the other, are they listening enough?

When you’re on the phone with someone and you hear that light tapping noise in the background, is that listening enough?

I don’t really know the answer to these questions, but I do know that we’ve hit a point in general communication where productivity, perceived or otherwise, trumps manners.

So, perhaps, as we think about gifts this holiday season, we should all consider giving the people in our lives the gift of undivided attention.

They’ll love it!

Happy Holidays!!!


Engaging Gen Y in a Tough Economy

November 4, 2009

Many Gen Y’s were raised with soccer on Monday, piano on Tuesday, language immersion on Wednesday, art on Thursday, and community service on Friday.  They are multi-taskers extraordinaire who expect every moment to be well spent with enriching experiences.

Clients have told me that one of the challenges they face with some Gen Y employees is a reluctance to do the same type of project multiple times.  One client lamented, “These employees have just moved beyond the training phase to where they’re really adding value, and they tell me they want to do something new because ‘they’ve done that already.'”  In fact, this generation tends to (consciously or subconsciously) view their early post-college work experience as another enrichment opportunity.

Even in the best of times, Gen Y’s were impatient in a work place that didn’t offer frequent new skills, new projects and new promotions.  Clearly, these are not the best of times. In better times, Gen Y’s would leave an organization that didn’t provide daily growth opportunities.  Now they are more inclined to just “check out.”
So, what’s an organization to do when they have trained these talented, new employees but are faced with an economy that has caused them to narrow the list of projects to which they could expose these employees?  How do they keep their Gen Y from “checking out” and how do they avoid a retention challenge as the economy slowly improves?

Below are three (free or inexpensive) suggestions that any company, large or small, could implement to continue to engage their Gen Y’s, provide critical learning opportunities, and confirm organizational values that are important for this complicated generation.


Give Back and Grow

Through constant Internet access and enrichment opportunities, this generation is very well aware of world troubles from economic challenges to environment ones.  They passionately want to help.  They want to “do good” in addition to “doing well.”  A conversation with the head of an MBA program confirmed that in the past few years more of their program’s students wanted to work for not-for-profits than ever before.  So, leverage this passion by encouraging a group of Gen Y’s to run a “do good” program in addition to their current set of responsibilities. 

But put some parameters on the program – the work they choose needs to have a positive impact on the company (direct or indirect) and provide a significant learning opportunity for the team.  Parameters should also be created around the amount of time that can be spent on these projects.  Here are two examples:

An internal program could be creating a campaign to reduce the use of paper in one group or across the organization.  The team would need to research a baseline, determine the area that could have the most impact, create a plan, communicate the plan, get the staff on board, track the results, and then document and communicate the environmental impact, and potentially, the economic savings. 


An external program could be selecting a “strategic” not-for-profit, determining a need, coordinating a team, meeting that not-for-profit’s needs, and communicating the efforts back to their employer.  By strategic, I mean a not-for-profit that has some connection to the organization either in expertise or where having undertaken this project could create goodwill with potential customers/clients.  I suggest this not to detract from the good deed with an ulterior motive, but to provide a chance for young talent to think about how to leverage their efforts to positively impact not only the not-for-profit, but also their employer.

Both these internal and external projects provide young talent with an opportunity to drive something they care about, create a significant improvement and thereby a positive impact for their organization, and strengthen their project management and communication skills which their current projects/tasks may not provide.  By requiring that they “make a case” for their project, they get experience in creating a proposal, pitching a project, and having to think strategically about their organization.  Encouraging/enabling them to undertake such a project will also create a higher respect for their organization.  These successful projects will give them bragging rights and positions the organization well among these employees’ peer groups.  That will help when hiring picks up and the search for candidates becomes more competitive again.


Search for Value

Gen Y’s do not want to just work for a paycheck. So many Gen Y’s get frustrated with their jobs because they don’t see how their efforts positively impact the business.  They don’t feel their work really matters.  Well, every organization has things it could do better.  Every project portfolio likely has projects that have stalled, have fallen off the list, or require a fresh set of eyes.  Point a team of ambitious Gen Y’s at one of those projects or, depending upon the staff size, create an “Impact Competition” where Gen Y (and perhaps other) teams are formed to propose and conduct projects that will improve something about the organization.  The project with the highest impact wins.   As with the projects discussed above, criteria in terms of type of project, quality attention to existing responsibilities, and time spent on these new projects must be clear.  The results of these types of projects are the improvements they bring; an opportunity to get not only the Gen Y’s, but also others in the organization energized; new skills (see list above;) new connections across the organization; and more loyalty from young talent.


Reciprocal Mentorship Programs

The traditional autocratic supervisory/management style with an underlying approach of “You’ll do what I tell you to do” is rarely effective with a generation that has been raised to believe their opinions count and encouraged to weigh in on family decisions since they were young.  They work most effectively with a more supportive, coaching style.  A strong manager can provide a lot of this.  But organizations should never underestimate the power of a well-placed, caring mentor, generally someone other than the employee’s manager.  

In the traditional sense, a mentorship is a “supportive relationship sustained over a period of time between a novice and an expert.  A relationship where one wiser and more experienced person assists another person to grow, learn and develop his/her vision for the future.”  Gen Y’s are generally very respectful of their elders and those with more experience.  Yet a critical trait of this generation is their expectation of respect in return.  Given that these creative, digital natives have valuable expertise to share, wouldn’t a “reciprocal” mentorship arrangement be more effective for everyone involved?

A reciprocal mentorship assumes that each participant is both novice and expert. Both come to the table willing to teach and willing to learn.  Established staff can help Gen Y’s learn important skills, fit within the culture of the organization, and navigate different departments and career paths.  Gen Y’s can help established staff members undertake a new approach to problem solving, learn new technologies, and become fluent in the latest acronyms. These programs can be as simple as a thoughtful, pro-active paring and some stated ground rules or as rich as providing facilitated monthly enrichment sessions and semi-annual catered gatherings.
The results will be a fresh perspective for established staff and increased job satisfaction, a stronger connection to the organization, and more organizational loyalty for Gen Y employees.  Everyone wins!


Any or all of these approaches will help organizations get stronger engagement from their Gen Y employees.  Done effectively, with passion and fun, they could get stronger engagement across the organization as well.

Multigenerational Conversations – Watch your Language

August 3, 2009

Communicating across generations is always difficult.  When today’s Gen Y’s say things like “I’m down with that,” older generations may find themselves wondering whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing.  Older generations will make references to things, like carbon paper, that younger generations have no frame of reference to understand.  It’s not meant to be rude, we just think and speak in the language of our peers.  Those differences can either be embraced as learning opportunities or can be jolts that never let good communication take root.

But what happens when there are differences of opinion and approach beyond just the use of language?  For example, a Gen Y comes into a new job and sees the use of an older technology that causes a process (and potentially the employee) to be less efficient.  In the new employee’s mind, the frustrated thought is, “This is ancient!”  Even if the employee doesn’t actually say that, it can usually be read on the employee’s face. 

Managers are not without insensitive reactions of their own.  When the employee questions a system or process, a response is likely to be that the employee is “naive,” “doesn’t know what he or she is talking about” and “should speak up only when he or she understands the situation better.”

Neither of these attitudes or approaches will lead to an open discussion, an exchange of ideas, and potential process improvements.

Another area that seems to bring quick disagreement is around the use of Internet and social networking tools in the workplace.  When organizations block the use of these tools, it’s generally a way to increase focus, productivity and security.  However, most Gen Y’s view blocked access to Internet and Social Network tools as significantly reducing their ability to work effectively.   Much has been written about this conflict including a recent article by Martha Irvine entitled, “Young Workers Push Employers for Wider Web Access and my “Social Networking Tools – To Enable or Disable Access?”

You can only imagine how contentious and heated a conversation between a manager and Gen Y can get around this topic.  Whether stated or unstated, it will eventually degrade into “This is ancient!” and “How naive.”

Let me offer a different approach – 4 magic words.

When someone makes a statement or responds to a question and you strongly disagree with the premise or conclusion, respond with a simple:


as in, “That’s interesting.  I see if differently.”  Then proceed to make your case with an unemotional, well-constructed counter-argument.  Saying “I see it differently” is not saying, “you’re wrong” and it’s not saying “you’re an idiot.”  It’s saying “give me an opportunity to explain my point of view which differs from yours.  Then we can discuss it.”  It lets the listener listen and not immediately get defensive.  It gives both parties an opportunity to see the other’s side and potentially reverse some or all of their position without losing face.  Done in the right tone, it allows the listener to say, “I never thought of that.” 

Think of the how much better your dissension will be received if it begins with those 4 simple words.

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