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The Gen Y Point of View

Millennials bring innovation just by sharing ideas on how things might work

A number of years ago, a ski instructor told me that he could always tell if a person learned to ski as an adult or as a child. In his experience, even though you could become a very good skier as an adult, you would never ski in exactly the same way that you would have had you learned as a child.

There’s a parallel in this story to the world of work today and the use of technology. Older adults have learned to use the available technology, but many of us use it in ways that are fundamentally different from the way millennials do naturally.

Millennials woke up in a world that was fully wired. They absorbed intuitively things that others have learned intellectually. They bring a perspective to today’s world of work that is inevitably different.

Much of my career has been spent studying innovation and helping organizations become more creative. Here’s the bottom line: At the heart of innovation is the combination of two previously unrelated ideas. These ideas might be an insight about a consumer need and a new way to solve it, two technologies that have never before been combined or the skills of one colleague sparking the creativity of another. They might be the application of a new idea for how to do something with an existing business need.

Sometimes this combination — the innovation — happens within one individual’s mind — he or she has an “aha” moment and a connection is made. But more often than not, it comes from two or more people getting together, each with unique perspectives or expertise, and sharing ideas to come up with something that none of them would have thought of on their own.

Inevitably, millennials will bring a different perspective to the workplace because the ideas they have will almost certainly be largely unrelated to the way things have been done for the past 50 years. As a result, they will bring innovation to the business world just by sharing their ideas about how things might work.

Millennials’ gift is not that they know how to use the technology, it’s that the way they use it causes them to think and act in different ways. They understand a world that is asynchronous, based on coordination, machine- enhanced, collaborative and alone. They bring these and other new perspectives to work.

They select and use technology to make their lives easier. This may sound obvious, but they manage technology — and its role in their lives — in ways that are helpful and productive, not intrusive or anxiety-producing as they are for many older adults.

Millennials find uses for technology that is just “good enough.” Many of the uses they have rapidly adopted and popularized, such as texting and camera phones, began with an initial lowering of the quality standards, but in ways that fundamentally created new patterns of use. Those who focused on the crummy quality of phone photos totally missed the extraordinary new uses that would soon open up.

They coordinate, rather than plan. They home in on friends like ships using radar and bring this practice to the workplace. For them, work involves far less planning or scheduling than has been common in most organizations in the past. For a number of activities, this will prove more efficient.

Millennials understand the role of reputation in the digital world. They are heavily dependent on peer networks to identify the best, most-trusted sources. They know how to build their own reputations as both knowledge- able sources and insightful reviewers.

They also know how to work alone together. Ironically, given the strong movement toward collaboration and crowds, millennials are comfortable working physically alone, although they may be “alone” in a coffee shop, surrounded by dozens of others.

Make sure you have enough of these new perspectives present in your organization. Remember, it’s in the combination of two different points of view that innovation occurs.

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  • Tamara Erickson Tamara J. Erickson is a McKinsey Award-winning author, a leading expert on generations in the workplace, and a widely-respected authority on leadership, the changing workforce, collaboration and innovation, and the nature of work in intelligent organizations. She has three times been named one of the 50 most influential living management thinkers in the world by ... more

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