A few years ago we were having a debate at the office about how to approach problems. That’s a wide statement, of course. But the conversation was not about how to solve any issue in particular. The discussion focused more on a certain template to our processes, and how that presupposed other things. How we identify problems, whom we assign the resolution to and why we choose one person over another. Like so many things, these decisions are partly determined by our generational perspective. But generations solve problems differently. So do older decision makers need an overall reset?
Is there one answer for leaders if generations solve problems differently?
Trust…then modify. Gen X managers are constantly encountering types of problems they could not envision when they were in their junior roles. From managing global teams to understanding fast-evolving client expectations, they face many other 21st century challenges – and opportunities – not foreseeable twenty or thirty years ago. However, they now must recognise that they not only have different types of problems but also different types of solvers. At the risk of sounding a bit meta, the only solution to this problem is to change the question itself. How do the people on my team who are Gen Y or Gen Z see this problem? What is the most efficient way for them to get to an answer?
One way to Z the answer. I began to understand the ways generations solve problems differently was just observing my own Generation Z daughter in grade school. She was watching a cartoon where the main character, with the help of some animated friends, went off an adventure, and in the face of some adversity, overcame the challenge as a group. There was not a single superhero who saved the day. I also knew she was in a class that focused on group problem solving, where each person was encouraged to contribute by bringing their own talents. In that class, the slogan was “be the best you can be”. And that meant being the best at your particular strengths.
In both instances, it demonstrated that her generation was being groomed to solve problems in two ways that are becoming more prevalent than before. First, it emphasises an assumption that challenges are best solved as a group. But traditionally, the person tasked to solve it might be the one with the most subject matter expertise, or overall experience. Here each member of that group brings their strengths to help fully illuminate the problem. And, it supports the idea of positive psychology, which is not that anyone needs to improve their weaknesses, but simply for each individual to double down on strengths. And so, there is no need to overcome “blind spots” as a single decision maker would have to do.
Jacks of all trades versus one trick ponies. These differences mean that Millennials and Gen Z are more comfortable acknowledging that they can rarely have all the information necessary to solve a problem, or even comprehensively diagnose it. They might be perfectly happy to recognise that skills are more and more specialized, and why that is actually the proper approach to a more and more complex marketplace. But also, this might be why group think is not just a generational ideology but a moment in time philosophy. The pace in which things evolve, from technology advances, to social media channels, to consumer tastes might mean that younger generations are not abdicating individual-minded responsibility. It might mean that the only way to keep apace with change is to take it on as a group.
Organisations can find the answer for how generations solve problems differently
Observing how Generation Z children are being socialised through cartoons or taught in school made me also realise that future generations, frankly, might not thrive in the current work environment. The traditional philosophy of problem solving asks individual people to take on individual problems, or, break down larger problems into subtasks to be doled out to individuals. That pre-defines what the problem is as opposed to group identification of the challenge. And, we ask people to solve all elements of a problem, even if certain aspects do not align with their strengths. Over time, the very structure of our organisations may be built around a way of thinking that our employees were not built for, so to speak. And that is a problem that calls for a different solution altogether.
Robert Kovach is the Director of Leader Success for Cisco’s Leadership and Team Intelligence Practice Area. He has been an advisor to leadership teams of Fortune 500, FTSE 100 and FTSE Global 500 companies on driving business strategy through executive leadership effectiveness and organizational agility. The opinions expressed in this blog are his own and not those of Cisco. Contact him for speaking enquiries.