Tuesday, 10 November 2009

New Ground Rules for a New Generation

I suppose it comes with age but I’m noticing some huge differences emerging in the attitudes and behaviours of young adults that are making me fundamentally rethink the way in which we establish ground rules with groups. It’s only a question of time before today’s teenagers are participating in meetings and problem solving groups..and here’s my fear. If we impose the ground rules that we (older ones) have grown up with, we run the risk of imposing a straight jacket on the thinking potential of the future.

Our received wisdom

It’s not uncommon to find groups developing their ground rules, norms or contract to help them in their work together. Here’s some assumptions about participation in groups that I have grown up with and importantly the resulting ground rules that we hold dear in our meetings.

Questionable assumption 1: Clarity of thinking can only be achieved by doing one thing at a time. Also called multi-tasking, the thing that us males are apparently not able to do. I agree this might apply to some but what about the new generation. I observe teenagers watching television whilst at the same time cruising the web, catching up on facebook, twittering , participating in multiple chats on skype and msn….all at the same time and seemingly able to keep track of everything in parallel. Maybe Winston Churchill was right we he said “We are only operating at a fraction of our capacity”.

The problem with Assumption 1 is that it drives ground rules in groups such as ‘Mobiles off’ and “No interruptions” and “E-mails at breaks”. An if a new generation is exposed to this straightjacket, is there not the risk that hyperactive brains that are used to doing many things at the same time will become occupied with other things that are not helpful to the team of organization. In fact recently I participated in a highly productive meeting, oozing with creativity and quality decision making with several team members in their 20’s and 30’s many of whom were adopting the ‘Blackberry Prayer’ position (head bent down, both hands together clutching the Blackberry responding to e-mails) but were still able to absorb all that was being said and to build on it too.

Questionable assumption 2 The Ideal state for learning is an energized state. This assumption triggers outbursts from frustrated presenters, facilitators and trainers when they see participants become chilled, relaxed and even closing their eyes. But this is exactly what I observe in our younger generation. One minute multi-tasking, holding 7 different conversations lasting no more than 140 characters in each exchange and then followed by a zombie like state, watching repeats of programmes like Friends that have been watched a thousand times.

The problem with this assumption is that individuals can be in an extremely resourceful state without exhibiting energy. A reflective, zen-like state is completely lacking in energy. Additionally, there is research to suggest that we are most creative when we have ‘Alph-Theta’ levels of brain activity, something that comes with deep relaxation.

Questionable assumption 3. People will only receive and act on feedback if it’s constructive. I am a huge fan of the philosophy of Appreciative Inquiry and Solutions Focus in finding out what works and doing more of it. Of giving feedback which is a combination of ‘What I like about you is….’ and ‘What would raise the bar is…’ It seems to be a lot less harsh the alternative of letting others know how bad they did.

But I notice a shift here too. Simon Cowell is universally disliked for the straightforward feedback her gives young hopefuls in the ‘X-factor’. But the effect he has is to shake people to their core and it seems that after some reflection, those on the receiving end value the directness of the feedback.

One of the best pieces of feedback I ever received was from a dear friend, Patrick Hare, who said to me once, “When are you going to stop ***** about and behaving like a real consultant. It was the wake-up I needed.

I’m also fascinated by the concept of ‘Curling Parenthood’. This is the notion that youngsters today are being ill-prepared for the life of uncertainty and change that awaits them because their parents have done all the problem solving for them. In the same way that a good curling team will expend much energy smoothing the ice in front of the stone to make sure it glides easily to it’s target.

The problem with this assumption is can create ‘Curling Teamwork’ where the bumps and knocks are avoided because they will be too uncomfortable. And even worse this lack of transparency, in my experience results in the feedback being shared in the corridor out of earshot of the person who needs it most.

Questionable assumption 4. People need to feel secure that they won’t get quoted before they can be truly transparent. We’ve seen the ground rules “What’s said here, stays here” or “What goes on tour, stays on tour”. I’ve experienced these to be helpful to groups I’ve worked with especially on sensitive subject. However, are the next generations demanding much greater levels of transparency? Is the growing disillusionment with governments and financial institutions today primarily driven by the complete lack of openness?

The problem with this assumption is that it encourages behaviours including lack of ownership and secrecy. And are we not exacerbating this trait by introducing the ground rules above into teams?

New Ground Rules

As we consider the different expectations, behaviours and attitudes of the next generations, is it not time for us to challenge the long established ground rules we have used in groups.

Instead of “Mobiles and blackberries off” how about “Do what you need to do for you to be alert on all front”

Instead of “Invest your energy, the more you put in the more you get out” how about “Chose the best state to be in for you and the group”.

Instead of “Give feedback as a gift” how about “Say it as it is because there is no such thing as failure, only feedback’

Instead of “What’s said here stays here, it’s confidential”, how about “We share everything that’s useful”

And hopefully we can begin to create a meeting environment that future generations will thrive in rather than dread.