Last week I delivered a talk entitled “Unstick Your Business with Millennial Power” at a Colorado workforce symposium. The title started as something of a joke between me and the event organizer who kept bouncing back my topic suggestions saying they wanted more of a generational flavor for the event. But as I developed the talk I realized how my crazy title reflected a real strategy for driving a series of breakthroughs within an organization. Here’s how it can work:

Millennials represent will represent 40-75% of the workforce by 2025, depending upon who you ask. But as the new kids on the block they’re having to wait their turn before being allowed to work on anything too “important” or to manage themselves. One has to pay their dues, right? As a result, they’re a hugely underutilized resource.

I’m sure you’ve heard managers echoing the unflattering Millennial stereotypes but the truth remains that Millennials are more educated and technically adept than any of the other arbitrarily defined generations before them. The data also shows Millennials stay at a job longer than we did at the same age (surprise!) and that they want more frequent performance reviews and coaching. Oh, and that they’re awesomely idealistic, wanting interesting work and for that work to have a higher purpose. 

At the same time, our organizations often find themselves stuck in some important way — maybe projects are stalling, sales may not be hitting goals, or cost may be level or rising. Or maybe there’s just a sense of “it is what it is” that keeps things from changing or improving. Any of these can be true no matter our size or business sector. We want to achieve more, but nothing is changing. We’re stuck.

Sure, we have people and we could move them around or even reorganize again, but we’re concerned that’d create new problems. This is where those Millennials come in: Consider using them in task focused teams working on a single area of “stuckedness” — challenging the way things have been done and creating new workflows, maybe with new tools or procedures. Most of these projects will be a week to six months or so in duration. While the projects are short, they’re extremely high impact. They’ll also serve to bring Millennials “into the fold” and helping them to understand the organization at a deeper level — a solution in one place can’t cause an awkward problem in another.

I’ll caution that some “pre-work” is required to insure the Millennials will be fully engaged in what needs to be done. I suggest using Dan Pink’s book Drive; The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us as a framework. Pink identifies three key components to engagement - Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. Autonomy is the ability to determine how things are done, Mastery is the development of skills and abilities, and Purpose provides the “why.”

Two things need to be clarified: 

One, while Boomers and Gen X’ers want these three things someday, Millennials expect them now. 

And two, Pink listed them in the wrong order. When it comes to Millennials, Purpose comes first. In fact, in an Intelligence Group survey, 64% of Millennials said they’d rather make $40,000 a year at a job they love than $100,000 a year at a job they think is boring. It’s as if Millennials have been listening to us all those times we complained about our work!

We can do a better job engaging Millennials by helping them to see how their values and interest align with our organization’s purpose and how we’re working to achieve that purpose. Here’s the process I recommended during my presentation:

    1.    Create alignment from the purpose. Be wildly inclusive gathering folks to review the purpose of the organization and the essential elements to achieving that purpose. I suggest a physical process using big Post-its on a big wall. This gets everyone standing and working together. I use a three levels with the organization’s purpose at the top, the three to five critical success factors for that purpose in the middle, and below those the necessary conditions for each critical success factor. Sometimes one necessary condition supports another or even another critical success factor. I use art tape (it’s removable) to indicate the key connections.
    2.    Take a close look at what’s been captured as the purpose of the organization. Is it what the organization was actually created to do? Sometimes the original purpose was to solve a particular problem but the metrics used to insure progress have taken over and become the day-to-day purpose. 92% of Millennials believe that business success should be measured by more than profit. Are we helping people to make money, or are we making money so we can help people? The answer matters to Millennials.    
    3.    Check what’s on the wall by reading it top down using the magic words “In order to…we must…” to connect each layer. Change (rewrite or move) anything that doesn’t make sense or resonate.
    4.    Use constraints to target Millennial SWAT (or kaizen) team opportunities. Now’s the time to look at the necessary conditions on the wall. Which one’s are at risk? Then of those, which is causing the biggest impact toward achieving the purpose of the organization? That’s the one we pick for our SWAT team.

A few thoughts on helping the team once a project is in flight:

Sometimes a team will need a bit more “curation” of ideas than those developed by Gen X’rs or Boomers who'll apply the boundaries of their experiences. Be prepared for approaches that challenge your ideas of how things should work.  

The team may need guidance (particularly on early projects) to make sure solutions are well communicated and implemented. Simply posting a “solution” isn’t enough. They’ll also need support working across any silos, particularly if a solution impacts workflows or metrics of other areas.

Lead more and manage less. Autonomy means deciding (almost like an independent contractor) how the work gets done. The line between managing and micromanaging Millennials isn’t where you might think it is. Enabling Mastery means helping your Millennial SWAT team succeed over time by asking what they want to get better at for the current project, and the next ones, and making sure they have those opportunities.

Check in frequently to make sure the team is self correcting and learning. Give feedback at least weekly on how the project is being perceived and its successes and challenges.

Once a project is done (and I mean really done) let the team have a breather before moving to the next constraining opportunity.

At each step of the way, as my Millennial daughter says, be ready for unexpected awesomeness that’s… well, on fleek. Or on lit. Or something.