Turning loose your millennial "tweakers" | Mike Cook

By Mike Cook
Contributing Writer 

It is fascinating to me to witness the seeming differences in priorities between my youngest and oldest sons. It was strange enough having 16 years separate them in age.

I can recall getting requests like these within five minutes of each other: “Dad can I borrow the car?” vs. “Dad can you change my diaper?” But now that both are well on the path of meeting most of their own needs, I find the gap in ages to be reflective of a very different set of perspectives on what constitutes a life worth living.

Just to be clear, I am not passing judgment here, rather noting the differences and observing how they lead to very different trajectories in both plans and actions.

With my oldest son, I’d say the priorities are closer to my own, somewhat driven by a tendency to keep score against some preset norms of having: job, family, house, neighborhood, etc.

My youngest seems driven by a much less tangible vision, something much more qualitative in nature, seemingly aimed at satisfying a set of inner, rather than external, measures.

In 2011, I read an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by William Deresiewicz, titled ‘Generation Sell’. In this piece Deresiewicz takes us through his analysis of a millennial generation that seems to be so troubling to work with or even understand for many managers today.

His central insight is that this is a generation of entrepreneurs: “Today’s ideal social form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator as such; it’s the small business. Every artistic or moral aspiration — music, food, good works, what have you — is expressed in those terms.”

In Deresiewicz’s view, the millennials operate with “a distrust of large organizations, including government, as well as the sense, a legacy of the last decade, that it’s every man for himself.”

So, their entrepreneurial inclinations are driven as much from a self-preservation strategy as previous generations were driven by the desire for security.

While millennials view the small business as the idealized social form of the current times, many of them continue to work in our mainstream organizations. They literally walk among us, having learned how to play the game by developing an ability to fit in, rather than drop out and assume the risks of business ownership.

Given the continued premium we place on compliance, it is likely that we have not tapped the entrepreneurial instincts of this generation, and this is likely why they will eventually leave us.

As managers, we might do ourselves an enormous favor by not asking how we can get them to be like us, but rather how can we give them reason to stay and invest themselves in our future.

A 2011 issue of the New Yorker magazine features a Malcolm Gladwell piece on Steve Jobs titled ‘The Tweaker’. In the article, Gladwell identifies Jobs’ genius not so much as that of an inventor but truly more of a “tweaker” by definition: “The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper, and re-imagines the world. The tweaker inherits things as they are, and has to push and pull them toward some more nearly perfect solution. That is not a lesser task.

As managers, we might prefer a team of “tweakers” to a team of inventors, since inventors are notorious for lacking commercial instincts and are often satisfied with proving out rather than perfecting their ideas.

Cases in point abound, but suffice for now for me to remind us all of the boon Xerox research has been to the technology industry, if not necessarily to itself.

So, if Deresiewicz is on to something—and from my knowledge of my own 24-year-old son, I’d say he is—it is incumbent upon us to find a way for our millennial employees to contribute by “being in charge” of something they view as important.

This will have less to do with salary category or titles than with the idea of having a lot of say in something important to our business—maybe not the final say but certainly a lot leading up to it.

Turning our millennial employees loose to “tweak” might seem like an invitation to chaos. But it might also just be a formula for the engagement and retention of our best and brightest.

What can you do to give your millennial employees more of a say in the business, and an invitation to make what is working even better than it is now?

Mike Cook is a management developer who lives in Anacortes, Wash. His columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He also publishes a weekly blog at www.heartofengagement.com.


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