I was reading John Foley’s article in Information Week spotlighting the speech given by NASA’s CTO Chris Kemp at last week’s Government IT Leadership Forum.  Recently hired to the newly created CTO position by NASA’s CIO Linda Kureton, the article focused on how NASA was finding ways to ramp up IT innovation.  In sharing some of the strategies NASA was pursuing,  the CTO acknowledged that NASA had to find ways to accommodate the Millennials whom he called  “a new ‘unconstrained’ generation of employees”.

By unconstrained he meant they are used to being mobile and connected 24/7.    The CTO admitted that most government agencies today were ill prepared to do this. In my research and experience, it’s not just the public sector but many Fortune 500 companies that are having trouble changing their culture to accommodate the new workforce. In doing so, they are losing many opportunities to unleash innovation within their teams.  Before you can unleash it, you have to recognize and understand this new generation.

You have to resist the temptation to brush them off and judge them as being lazy, entitled and a nuisance.  When you go beyond the labels and take the time to see what they’re about, they will surprise you… pleasantly that is.  You will see that they have a genuine desire to contribute and love to share their knowledge, ideas and experiences with you.  What leader doesn’t want that in their team members?

Are you going to run into some young folks that are lazy and entitled?  Of course.  I’ve run into my fair share of Boomers and Xers that sport the same labels. Those qualities are not the exclusive domain of Millennials and neither are collaboration and technical proficiency.  The point is that innovation requires us as leaders to first apply it to ourselves before we can expect it of our teams.  For us, the key is to challenge our legacy management priniciples, embrace discomfort and experiment.  It doesn’t have to happen on a grand scale. 

The first time I had lunch with Jay, my first Millennial whom I almost fired because of his “interesting attitude”, I never dreamed that years later I would transform my leadership capabilities and that I would have a vibrant, engaged multi-generational team that generated and implemented great ideas. It started small - one lunch – but I kept at it and soon I was a building a bridge to this unfamiliar group. 

Instead of saying “No, it won’t work”, I learned to say “Let’s give it a try”.  I learned that to innovate I had to accommodate.  I had to experiment.  Just like NASA is doing.

How about you?  Are you accommodating or restraining?