Have you ever heard a Millennial say, “Listen to my great idea”?

We all know this: Millennials now make up the single largest portion of today’s North American labor force.

What many of us don’t know, is that 68% of organizations  report serious difficulty in managing Millennials. On the other hand, 72% of Millennials say that their managers aren’t getting the most out of their skills.

Take this scenario, for example:

A senior-level manager at a company gives instructions to her team. These instructions haven’t changed much in the last 10 years. A new recruit feels confident that there’s a faster and better way to do the task. Should the new recruit suggest the alternative, or is that inappropriate?

Bob (the 20-something ambitious new recruit): I don’t understand why Susan won’t listen to my great idea. I feel like she doesn’t value my insights. After all, I do have fresh eyes.

Susan (the respected senior manager): Bob’s just a kid. I wish he spent more time understanding this company. Then, he’d know why his idea simply just wouldn’t work.

To be able to answer the question above, we need to first recognize the generational differences that influence our expectations, values, ideas, and behaviors at work:

Preferences in.. (Boomers vs. Millennials)

  • Work Style: Get it done, whatever it takes vs. work to deadlines, not to schedules.
  • Leadership: Respect for power and accomplishment vs. values autonomy.
  • Communication: Somewhat formal and through networks vs. casual and direct, eager to please.
  • Recognition: Public acknowledgement and career advancement vs. individual praise and exposure, opportunity for broadening skill set.
  • Loyalty: To the meaning and importance of work vs. to the people involved
  • Technology: Necessary for progress vs. what else is there?

To avoid negative impact on both day-to-day operations and the bottom-line, executive leaders must provide training and support to better manage today’s generational gaps.

Far too often, the biggest challenge is getting Boomers and Millennials to see past their biases and learn how to better work together towards a common goal.

To help teams address this, we’re sharing our key four principles around effective ways to manage and navigate this. In addition, we’ve provided an example of what that would look like, given the scenario noted above.

Always find common ground.

Utilize alignment from shared values to help guide conversations.

  • At the core, Bob and Susan both want better ways of doing things. However, in order to propose something “new”, they recognize that a solid understanding of “current” is necessary.

  • Therefore, the common challenge between the two of them is, “How might we better equip employees with the knowledge and understanding they need in order to suggest new ideas?” 

Everyone wants to be treated with respect.

Acknowledge that it might sound and look different, based on different perspectives and experiences.

  • Susan appreciates Bob’s enthusiasm and eagerness to contribute comes from his desire for impact.
  • Bob appreciates Susan’s ability to command structure and process comes from her desire to get things done.

Avoid stereotype-driven remarks.

Don’t judge capabilities based on differences in work styles, or use words like “dinosaur” and “kid”.

  • Susan and Bob both acknowledge that sometimes, they fall prey to stereotypes. Instead, they will re-direct this energy into learning about each other’s experiences and perspectives — they’re all valid data points.

Be willing to experiment.

Be willing to flex your natural preferences as long as the focus remains on what matters: productivity, teamwork, and customer relationships.

  • Bob and Susan will work together to find structured time to experiment, so that Susan may be satisfied from a planning standpoint, and Bob may be satisfied from an innovation standpoint.

By working and collaborating across generations, we can uncover valuable insights into the past while helping everyone envision an evolved future.

Just think — wouldn’t it be great if this were the type of scenario instead?

Susan (the respected senior manager): I love that Bob is full of ideas. However, they’re not well flushed out, because he lacks a deep understanding of our company’s ops strategy and process. How might we get him up to speed? In the meantime, I need to make sure I’m communicating the fact that I really appreciate his contributions.

Bob (the 20-something ambitious new recruit): I acknowledge that there’s a lot that I don’t know yet. How might we help new employees like myself understand why things work the way that they do? I also need to spend more time framing conversations, so that my team members may easily understand my ideas.

Finally, it’s important to acknowledge that there is no such thing as a “Millennial problem”. Since the beginning of time, people have always complained about younger generations. Each generation brings it’s own set of values, needs, and expectations. We also know that when these are not met, as humans, we fundamentally feel unfulfilled. And this will happen again, with Gen Z, and Gen Alpha, etc. (Hey, we got back to “A”!)

At the end of the day, when differing ideas and opinions are valued, employees of different generations learn from each other and work together to achieve common goals.

Through generational harmony, we may build an evolved level of understanding and trust, while fostering both productivity and innovation within teams.

Innovation: You're Doing It Wrong

Hackathons and innovation labs have quickly made their way from Silicon Valley into corporate boardrooms, championed by business leaders who realize that they must “innovate or stagnate”. Millions have been invested into initiatives with the intent of creating new technologies, increasing profits, and attracting top talent. Although hackathons and labs are encouraging signs, too often innovation strategy stops here.

Throughout the years, we’ve witnessed hundreds of forward thinking ideas pitched and demo'd in showrooms, but despite the fanfare, the majority never make it to market. 

Wait, but why?

Corporate politics, constraints of legacy infrastructure, risk-averse culture, and bureaucracy are only some of the barriers to implementation. Without entrepreneurial values in a company's DNA, innovation initiatives will foster more resentment than optimism. 

As serial entrepreneurs and design strategists, we’ve been asked to bring our "vision to market" capabilities to numerous organizations. Over several years working with more than 70 clients, we've found that 3 ingredients are essential to fostering successful innovation culture:

1) Failure happens - embrace it.

“Fail early, fail fast” is the startup entrepreneur’s slogan. The most disruptive ideas arise from risk-taking and experimentation, in which some failure is inherent. By no mean do we advocate for companies to build recklessly, but by being lean and agile throughout product development, risk can be easily mitigated. 

Yet “failure” is a word that corporations are trained to fear. Performance reviews and budget approvals based purely on one’s successes propagate a risk-averse culture. It's no surprise that employees stick with what’s been proven and become resistant to change.

Business leaders should foster an environment that rewards experimentation in the pursuit of creative ideas. This may come in the form of new performance metrics, company-wide transparency regarding failures and learnings, or employee training in lean methodologies. No matter what form this takes, leaders should acknowledge the factors that cause risk-averseness, and structurally encourage experimentation rather than penalize it. 

2) Create bridges across silos.

Launching a new initiative requires the approval of multiple stakeholders. In organizations where teams operate in silos, this can be a major challenge. Unwilling supporters, unforeseen constraints, and misaligned incentives can grind projects to a halt. This challenge persists even within innovation labs, many of which are isolated teams far removed from the rest of the organization.

To overcome this, innovators and implementers (eg. front-line staff) should collaborate from the very beginning - ensuring alignment on vision and identification of constraints. Executives should consider adjusting incentives to make innovation initiatives a priority through all levels of the company. 

3) Less friction, more empowerment.

Approval processes within large organizations are often complex, inefficient, and time-consuming. Innovation projects get stuck in bureaucracy limbo where they die a slow painful death. We've seen simple IT requests take weeks to complete, and access to customers for product testing being flat-out denied.

For innovation projects where idea to market speed is vital, consider special channels that bypass traditional processes for funding, development, and testing. This may come in the form of a separate funding and evaluation model for blue sky initiatives, an approvals short track giving teams access to the latest software tools and data sets, or executive advocates committed to cutting through the tangle of internal politics. 

The greatest challenge with corporate innovation is not in finding the right ideas, but creating an environment where they can thrive and scale. Business leaders should recognize that to foster innovation culture, they must have the courage to embrace failure, inspire collaboration, and empower their most creative employees.