I am always surprised how assumptions creep into our decision making process and often prevent us from seeing and leveraging great opportunities.  Asssumptions are stealth beliefs that we carry with us and we don’t realize are there.  Because we are not aware of them, it becomes very difficult to question and challenge them.  But I believe the successful leaders of the 21st Century will be the ones who become adept at finding ways to identify the assumptions behind their decision making process.  Once you understand what those assumptions are, you have taken a big step forward and can now begin the more difficult task of questioning whether those assumptions are valuable or detrimental in your ability to lead a 21st Century organization.

Let me give you a personal example of how assumptions crept into my decision making process.  As you know by now, I have spent a lot of time observing Millennials in the workplace.  One of their greatest strengths is their comfort with technology.  I have said many times that they don’t see technology as technology but rather as a way of life.   Because Millennials have always been around PCs and Macs,  those are their preferred platforms.  They have become experts on these platforms and leverage them in ways previous generations have not.

Their proficiency in those platforms automatically created an assumption in my way of thinking:  Millennials will never learn or embrace the old mainframe systems.  Mainframes are not something Millennials have been exposed to, learned in school or have worked on.  For them, the technology is outdated and not terribly exciting when compared to all the Web 2.0 stuff they love.  

That assumption highlighted a big problem in the future.  Mainframes are the backbone of many US industries and  large corporations.  Think about banking, healthcare, insurance, federal & state government agencies, utility, manufacturing.  They all utilize mainframes.  My assumptions around Millennials and mainframes made me wonder what would happen in the future as Baby Boomers began to retire? Who would support these mainframes?  Would we have to outsource all of our mainframe support and if so, for how long?  To me there was a huge gap brewing.  How were we going to pass the mainframe baton to the newer generations?

And then I came across this article written by Patrick Thibodeau in CIO Magazine called “ Daughter Follows Her Father Into a Mainframe Career”After reading it, I realized that another sneaky assumption had crept into my decision making process and was preventing me from tapping into a great opportunity.  The article talks about how at 12 years old, Kristine Harper’s dad took her into his offices as part of the now famous ”Take your Daughter to Work Day”.  Kristine’s father, Tom Harper, was a mainframe programmer and after showing his daughter what he did all day she said to him: “Dad, I love you, but if this was the last job on the planet, I wouldn’t want it”.  Now that would be a typical Millennial response when faced with the non-sexy but critical elements of running mainframes.

Fast forward to today.  Kristine is a 27 year old Millennial working in the research and development unit of company called Neon Enterprise Software, Inc. in Texas. Same place her dad works.  What does she do?  She works in the mainframe department!  Can you believe it?  A Millennial who actually CHOSE to work in mainframes.  But it gets better.  According to the article, Kristine actually has quite a prominent role in the mainframe community. She is part of a group that she organized herself called the IBM Share user group’s zNextGen project.  There are over 700 engineers, all of them Millennials, that are “looking to improve mainframe technology skills and find places to use them.”  This group will certainly lead the way in trying to close the gap that currently exists in the mainframe world between the retiring Baby Boomers and the much needed younger generation to replace them.  Through their example and vast social networks, they will undoubtedly get other Millennials excited about mainframes and others will join the cause.

Can you imagine the exciting opportunities that the companies that employ these 700 engineers have ahead of them?  These Millennials will surely bring their own unique approach to looking at mainframes.  They will see things and try things that the Baby Boomers may never have seen because they were so immersed in the old ways of looking at mainframes.  I’m sure they will give mainframes a much needed makeover and boost into the 21st Century.

Many leaders believe that Millennials don’t appreciate how and why things were done. They feel Millennials need to be led by the hand to see the forest from the trees.  Kristine and her Millennial Mainframe Posse clearly disprove these assumptions as well.  They saw an opportunity that probably their own bosses did not see. They collaborated as they do so well, and will find ways to blend the old with the new and develop and deliver a better product.   

Even as someone who has worked closely with Millennials, I would have let my assumptions get in the way in this particular situation. Instead of providing opportunities for Millennials to immerse themselves, talk to and learn from the mainframe experts, I would have “assumed” that the fit was not good. A great opportunity lost.  That’s why identifying and challenging our assumptions are critical techniques to lead effectively in this dynamic and ever changing workplace.

What about you?  How many times  are your assumptions getting in the way of innovation, of finding wonderful opportunities to do things differently and do them better? How many times is it getting in the way of seeing the value that Millennials bring to your team? In how many ways are those assumptions costing you and your organization? Watch out for those pesky stealth assumptions in your leadership approach.  They creep in there in ways you can’t even imagine.