Monday, May 20, 2013

Techno-naturals; fun seeking powerful disruptors

My daughter is a native; I am an immigrant. But I am not talking about geographical origin; I am referring instead to technology. I was born with not much in the way of electronic devices in the house. We did not have a phone or television until a few years after starting elementary school. Then again, I should probably clarify that it was a "wired" phone. Forget about remote controls, microwave ovens or computers.
My daughter, on the other hand, has only known a world with all these gizmos and more. Today, it is hard to believe that the internet, as we know it, did not exist before Netscape created the graphical interfaces that helped us see more than just code on a screen back in the early 90's . Yes, like my daughter, there are many young technology natives who were born at a time of rapid technological changes. These are now professionals being hired by our companies.
These techno-naturals come loaded with all sorts of acronyms and weird ideas about things that you have probably never had to deal with. These are the children of a wealthy nation. They have never experienced hardship when compared to all other generations. Perhaps more challenging is the fact that they will push their ideas harder than anyone else in your team. They feel entitled to get whatever they want. Don't be surprised if they even tell you, with a high degree of authority and confidence, the reasons why your business will disappear in a couple of years. They will call attention to your obvious lack of understanding of things such as four-square, or something like it. Good luck handling the new load!
An expected question would therefore be: do they bring any value at all? The answer is yes; with a caveat that they will force you to run a much better business in order to maximize their value.
First, techno-naturals are very different than many of your present employees. This difference will increase the diversity of your team. It is well documented that diversity is the basis for higher levels of innovation; something essential when trying to create separation between your company and your competition. Continuous innovation will also help keep your business periodically transforming, as a way to stay competitive within all sorts of rapid changing environments. Examples of better innovation through diversity range from cities to companies. New York city is a place where the density of people from everywhere has repeatedly made it the center of art, fashion, banking, etc in the world. At the start of the 20th century, Paris was such a place with people from all over the world flocking to it. At the other end of the spectrum, there are companies like IDEO. Perhaps the most creative design consultancy in the world, IDEO systematically solves product development and marketing challenges by deploying diverse groups with great individual expertise in their fields but with not much in common. The results are breathtaking ideas. They have purposely embedded diversity into their structure. While many teams actively exclude members who act or look different, taking the opposite attitude holds the best promise in business in a long time.
It is common for managers to struggle when handling opinionated individuals who prefer to rock the boat rather than just comply with the status quo. But having the energy to challenge a whole team is not necessarily a bad thing. Their efforts should be channeled in a way that best serves the company. For this, I have found that it is very important that managers have clear goals, a commitment to really empowering employees and the systems to create accountability.
Hard as this may be to believe, most companies do not have a clear goals. I am not talking at the kind of document that is written in isolation by a superior being and which is then placed in a museum away from all mortals. No! Instead, I am talking about the kind of stuff that any employee could talk about at the water cooler. Time and time again, I would ask a manager or business owner what their goals were only to hear a mumbling of disjointed and obvious platitudes. I then ask if it is possible that all employees give the same answer to the question. They inevitably respond with a "no, but they know what I want". Really? I don't think so.
There is a reason why most businesses stall when the owner or president is absent; something that these leaders admit openly. I must stress the importance of having a simple, clear and portable goal. It is also essential to constantly push it. It must be easy for any employee to see how their day to day activities can contribute to reaching such goal. If there is no connection between what they do and the company goals, perhaps the goals are wrong or the employee's activities must be immediately stopped. The right goals will allow everybody to gain pride from contributing to something important to all. What a better way to bring a new member into your team? Show that there is progress and that everybody counts; things that are important to techno-naturals.
Once the goals are set, each person should be allowed to drive the team there. This is where empowerment kicks in. Managers should be comfortable letting their people drive the bus to its destination; especially when these people are better at doing so.
I often hear employees complain that there is no empowerment within their company. Insecure micro-managers create the kind of environment where this can easily be used as an excuse. Most of the time, it is just because such managers do not know how to get people to act without taking the company in the wrong direction. This is where accountability systems are essential.
To create accountability, a clear direction and well established mile markers are essential. Professionals should have the latitude to best reach the destination in a different way than their manager. But how to know if they are truly going in the right direction? Well, through the use of mile markers. More than prescribed ways to do something, mile markers are the deliverables that are expected within a window of time. If they are reached outside of the specified time window, the project could miss its overall time target. So a review of resources or expectations should be undertaken before continuing. If the deliverables are simply not there, then the professional is not accomplishing what she should, may have to quickly adjust to a different plan and perhaps even forfeit the project. There is simply no latitude here.
I love it when I get a new team member coming with all the energy in the world but who lacks any forethought. I think that there is simply no better way to make them valuable team members than through the use of empowerment and accountability. They usually love the idea of empowerment. Accountability, on the other hand, goes right through their ears... until they hit the wall. Typically, it takes missing the first mile marker for them to go through all the stages of emotional grief.
Launch Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross 
Starting with (1) Denial, you will hear them try to do a Jedi -mind-trick on you by swearing up and down that they did not miss the mile marker. They then will turn to (2) Anger; not really mad, just acting upset. Immediately after, they will try to (3) Bargain with you. Once all else fails, they will feel (4) Depressed; not clinically depressed, just sad. In the end, they will (5) Accept. Now we are talking. The whole experience cycle is closed. You should then assure them that you can be instrumental at helping them achieve success next time. you should also take a mental Polaroid shot of the moment as it is the beginning of the long and arduous process of trust-building. I love management!
The difference between the employees of yore and the new generations is not about them but about your company; which at least from your perspective is what matters. Companies that have not developed superior productivity and effectiveness mechanisms will fail to maximize what techno-naturals bring to the business. The keys again are: clear goals, empowerment and accountability. The rewards are: better productivity and innovation.
Everything that I have discussed so far is quite serious (or even stiff), but techno-natives are not so serious people themselves. If there is something that they want to get out of life is fun. So, I thought of loosening the end of this post a bit by sharing a link to a very funny parody of the difficulty in communication to be expected between old school managers and their new-age warriors. Enjoy!
Launch Video




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