Woven within the opinions you may have generated about GenY to date, where does their definition of “progress” sit? If considering this question is not among those you’ve pondered of late, there are several factors linked to what progress means to Gen Y that bear direct impact on innovation, and your ability to create innovators in your organization.
Can ‘Definition of Progress’ for Gen Y Drive Innovation?
Earlier this year I read a provocative article recapping the findings of a 2012 study by Millennial Branding (Gen Y Traits in the Workplace Unveiled) conducted on Facebook, which addressed a question many of us have heard before: Will the Fortune 500 exist 10 years from now?
According to the learned folks who ran the study, they projected 40% of the companies now listed on this esteemed roster would not be around by 2025. In surveying over four million Facebook users, Millennial Branding indicated that only 7% of respondents indicated they are currently working for a Fortune 500 company. Perhaps even more foreboding was the finding that – looking ahead – big company life was not something which connected to the aspirations of most Gen Y folk.
Unlike past warnings of the financial death of the Fortune 500, the Millennial Branding forecast relates to its demographic death. If a body blow is delivered to the Fortune 500 by Gen Y “voting with their feet” over the next decade, it will represent less a failure of financial prowess than a refusal to adapt to new definitions of progress and success emerging from this huge generation. Given that these budding young workers will comprise as much as 75% of the US workforce by 2025, organizations must heed Gen Y’s emerging views of progress, or risk losing vital fuel for the innovation and collaboration engines so crucial to staying competitive today.
In examining why Gen Y is not deeply enamored with large companies, several reasons emerge. But here’s one. Millennial Branding founder Dan Schawbel states, “Gen Y looks for more flexibility…they want to have access to social networks. Fortune 500 companies don’t usually allow this flexibility…Companies need to allow Gen-Yers to operate entrepreneurially within the corporation by giving them control over their time, activities and budgets as much as possible.”
Through a conscious focus on the implications and learning offered by Gen Y’s new definition of progress, companies within and beyond the Fortune 500 can recalibrate, driving innovation more effectively, and magnetizing more Gen Y-ers to their ranks. We can also look to some of the revolutionary practices of Thomas Edison for guidance on how to create context for the seemingly unorthodox thinking around progress now emerging from Gen Y.
Gen Y Holds New Definitions of Progress
If you’re 50-something, you may remember this famous car slogan from the late 1980s: “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile, this is the new generation of Olds.” That ad ran in an era dominated by the Baby Boom generation, a time when progress was equated with advances in new technology that appeared every few years, and when having your name on a corner office was considered “success.”
But today, “new technology” is the norm. ‘New’ is always happening. Thanks to the innovation engines at companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook, advances in technology show up multiple times a year rather than just once every 12 to 24 months. Rather than occasionally bursting onto the living room television, ‘new’ is thrust daily onto our tablet screens and smart phones. Today, for Gen Y, progress is equated with relevance, and the ability of a product or service to meaningfully connect them with activities that are important to the functioning of daily life.
In their book The Progress Principle, Harvard Business School professors Theresa Amabile and Stephen Kramer reveal results from studies linking Gen Y’s sense of progress to inner purpose and shared meaning. For Gen Y, progress goes beyond the seemingly straightforward pathways to financial gain or career success that propelled their Baby Boomer parents.
Gen Y seeks participation in collaborative activity that involves sweeps of people including – but also lying beyond – those co-habiting their office space. Greg Cox, President and CEO of Dale Carnegie, Chicago – the organization’s third largest global office – notes that Gen Y recognizes “the future will not be based on individuals, but on extraordinary combinations of people.”
How are you harnessing these extraordinary combinations in your innovation efforts? Are you allowing Gen Y employees to reach into the depths of social networks, or explore the expanses of digital territory that can bring your team innovative new ideas, or unearth new patterns? If not, you’re dampening a key connection with progress that Gen Y views as crucially important to their workplace engagement – and to your innovation success.
Here are three principles Amabile and Kramer recommend for organizations seeking to engage Gen Y’s need for progress while also contributing to a broader desire for innovation momentum:
1. Consciously develop a climate of progress: If you are a team leader, a consultant, or simply heading up a collaborative initiative in your workspace, develop a progress center that captures stories and insights about what is going right. These can either be accounts of actual experiences physically posted in your work area, or made available online via wiki’s, an intranet, or other internal communication vehicles. Encourage frequent postings which consistently balance transparency and authenticity. Big wins – and small wins – all count.
2. Define what progress means to your team: While working on a recent project for a mid-size manufacturing company, the CEO revealed to me that a specially-selected work team he headed made a lot more progress when he was absent from the team than when he was present on it. Noticing that Gen Y members in particular clammed up or became very nervous when he challenged their viewpoints, the CEO ultimately refocused the team around progress goals that weren’t simply time-oriented, nor based on alignment with the CEO’s views. That was smart. Amabile and Kramer emphasize the need to ensure your team’s definition of progress isn’t solely revolving around factors linked to money, time, and power. Definitions of progress also need to embrace experiential learning, purpose, and the broader meaning behind the team’s shared efforts.
3. Experimentation connects to progress: Gen Y sees progress as linked to adapting, creating, and experimenting rather than to adopting a “let’s wait and see how things turn out” attitude. Their desire is to be forward leaning and proactive. Engage Gen Y by soliciting their suggestions for “digital experiments.” Take on board their ideas about situations in which new digitally-driven approaches to market research or product development can replace – or complement – more traditional approaches. Ensure they have access to social networking tools which connect them to the world beyond your office. When GenY-ers are encouraged to engage in experiments, it yields positive impact on their sense of progress. Even small wins resulting from new learning through experimentation can outweigh many other workplace rewards.
Many of the beliefs about progress now emerging from Gen Y have roots in Thomas Edison’s own revolutionary notions of innovation, collaboration, and competitiveness. Part of Edison’s ability to motivate the collaboration teams which spearheaded his innovation success rested on linking experimentation to a learning continuum. The culture of Edison’s Menlo Park and West Orange laboratories viewed experimentation as the lifeblood of progress itself.
Edison said, “The only way to keep ahead of the procession is to experiment. If you don’t, the other fellow will. When there’s no experimenting there’s no progress. Stop experimenting and you go backward.”
Whether the Fortune 500 can transform its Industrial Age mantle and take on new form in the Innovation Age remains to be seen. But heeding Gen Y’s expansive definition of progress can help the workforce in any organization recalibrate to drive greater collaboration and innovation competitiveness now.
image credit: nowsourcing
Sarah Miller Caldicott is an innovation author and great grandniece of Thomas Edison. After her ground-breaking book on Edison’s innovation process, Innovate Like Edison, Sarah wrote Inventing the Future: What Would Thomas Edison Be Doing Today? Her next book, Midnight Lunch (Wiley, Nov 2012) will translate Edison’s world-changing collaboration process for the digital era. A professional speaker and master trainer, Sarah is Founder/CEO of the innovation consultancy ThePower Patterns of Innovation. You can find Sarah on Twitter at @sarahcaldicott.