The Millenial Mentality

“I totally get it now! We are all just people who want to make a difference!” declared an exuberant participant in an SMPS panel discussion about Millennials.

As simple as this comment might sound, with all the rhetoric surrounding the Millennial generation, it would be easy to think they are some alien life form no one has any idea what to do with. Once you look past the ever popular “us vs. them” frame, though, it is obvious that there is no single generation that owns creativity, leadership, drive, laziness or any other characteristic. We truly are just people trying to contribute in some meaningful way to the world around us.

That’s not to say there aren’t distinctions among the generations that are useful to acknowledge. After all, Boomers, Gen X and Millennials grew up in very different worlds. Organizations that have figured out how to leverage these differences, like Svigals + Partners, Studios Architects, Dewberry and COOP Brand Partners, always seem to be innovating, have deeply engaged teams, and stand out among their competitors. So, what’s their secret?

At an SMPS TME event in New York City, I moderated a panel discussion in the hopes of finding out.

How the world works for a Millennial

As a consequence of when we are born and the things that are unique about the world at that time, our perception of what it means to operate successfully in the world will differ from people born at other periods of time. This topic as it pertains to Millennials has been covered ad nauseam by the media. Unfortunately, its presentation has served to put increasing distance between Millennials and everyone else. During the course of developing the SMPS panel and during the panel discussion itself, two distinctions came through that, if leveraged, could bring us all closer together.


1) Time vs. Contribution

As a Gen Xer I started my career with the idea that if I put in the time, advancement would follow. That is the traditional way professional service organizations grow and transition new leaders. However, Millennials operate with a different view. They believe that advancement should not be dependent simply on time spent but should take into account the value of contributions to the organization. Without this distinction, Millennials can appear to feel entitled. With it, we might see a person who is driven to contribute as much value as quickly as they can and expect to be recognized for doing so. Much as I would expect that if I put in my time, I should be recognized for it.

This points to a potential possibility; creating a way to recognize people for their contributions, not just for the years they have been present. This is something anyone from any generation would appreciate and, would likely result in deeper work engagement.


2) Hierarchy vs. Network

Organizations through the ages have been structured, more-or-less, as hierarchies. Hierarchical businesses have perfected reliable and predictable production of goods and services. But times have changed and the world is moving at a pace where hierarchies get in the way of progress and we are now seeing new organizational structures emerge as a result, e.g. Self-Organizing, Networked, etc.

Millennials want to get things done just as much as the rest of us. The difference is they believe organizations should be open networks of available resources rather than hierarchical structures with limited access. For those of us who have grown up in hierarchical work environments, the sight of someone easily stepping into offices and meetings it took us so much time to get permission to be in, can be shocking and feel unfair. However, if we look at it with this distinction in mind, this networked way of working can accelerate an organization’s ability to deliver work.


Including different ways of being and doing = innovation and growth

What’s possible if we reward an employee’s contribution, not just the time they’ve spent? Or if we set aside hierarchy and access our teams as a network? It is not productive to become mired in criticizing how Millennials think and operate, and how it flies in face of what has been thought or done in the past. Rather, consider that if you invite new ways of seeing and doing, your organization could be much more successful in creating new value.