Generation X vs. Millennials: Agile Development

A vast majority of managers in most companies today are [X]. This is mainly just a factor of age (Gen X’ers are now between the ages of 32 and 54) and certainly isn’t motivated by the desire of Gen X’ers to climb the corporate ladder (we are the original slackers, after all).

When Gen X’ers got their start in the work world we entered a culture created by the [GI] but dominated by the [Silent] and [Boom] in management. The GI model for management was based on their experience from their youth: a hierarchy based on the military circa WWII. Although the Boomers struggled mightily to break these institutions, their workaholic tendencies often meant that their values of commitment and endurance reinforced the structures in place by requiring long tenures to advance. That is the world that Gen X entered into in our work life and we reacted in a way that has become stereotypical for our generation: we sighed “Whatever” and compensated with a drive for a work-life balance instead of challenging “The Man” to change the structure.

So even though most Gen X’ers think that the strict heirarchies in most companies are rather silly, we have not challenged them much in our careers. There are certainly exceptions to this rule, but for the most part we just decided to lampoon the “Office Space” and devote ourselves to our children and our tribe. The result is that the structures left over from the days of “Mad Men” remain in place in much of the work world today.

Strauss and Howe have characterized the Silent and Gen X generations as “recessive” in contrast to the “dominant” Boomer and [Mill] generations. As Gen X’ers we take a back seat in society to the dominant generations we are sandwiched between. The good news is that we don’t need to shoulder as much blame for the screw-ups (we can justifiably point fingers at the Boomers for many of the challenges we face today) but it also means that we have to count on other generations to truly drive large social change. Which brings me to the Millennials in the workplace.

In recent discussions with Gen X managers in Silicon Valley I have noticed a shift that portends what Millennials may look for once they have the reigns. Most Gen X managers in technology are familiar with a project management technique known as Agile (aka SCRUM or Extreme). Created by programmers to give a more flexible way to manage projects in an iterative manner, it was cutting edge 15-20 years ago but has become the standard for project management today, particularly in software. I even use this method to manage projects on my team even though we don’t do programming. This method was probably developed by Boomers, but Gen X’ers were introduced to this approach early in their careers. As a result of growing up with these techniques (and seeing the failures of the previous approach known as “Waterfall“) many Gen X’ers in the Valley see this methodology as orthodoxy.

One  feature of Agile* that is worth noting for generational discussions are the daily meetings (sometimes called “Standups”) where each member of the team describes what they did the day before, what they will do the next day and any potential roadblocks to getting their work done. These short meetings ensure that each team member can work independently while staying coordinated with the entire team on a daily basis. Quick adjustment based on the information gained in a Standup are a hallmark of a well-run Agile project and are one factor that keeps projects from running off the rails unnoticed for months.

Gen X’ers can be characterized as individualists and so these meetings are a wonderful way to coordinate the activities of many individuals on a team. But Millennials were raised to be much more collective in their attitude (think Barney and High School Musical) and have been working together on projects from grade school through College. Most things with Millennials are group decisions and peer communication is constant (Gen X parents might say obsessively so).

I have heard to several Gen X managers who complain that their Millennial workers seem to think that Standup meetings are optional or that they can just communicate the information via text or Skype. This attitude is perceived as entitled and (optimistically) a bit naive. “Agile is the ultimate project management methodology and who are these kids to ignore its precepts?”, thinks the experienced Gen X manager.

But watching how Millennial teams organize and manage projects gives some insights into their thinking. I have seen Millennial development teams sit in the same conference room together for weeks during a project. After the work day ends they all head to the same bars together before heading home (often to shared living arrangements). They spend the entire day in constant communication, either in-person or via technology. The thought that they would need to “Check in with the team” for 15 minutes every day seems ridiculous. Based on their perspective there can only be one reason for the Standup meeting: to report to Gen X managers on their work. That’s right, Gen X, what started as way to empower individual team members and speed projects is seen as micromanaging on the part of many Millennials.

I have coached the Gen X’ers to work with Millennials to help them understand the importance of the Agile process through the needs of the larger group. Motivating them based on this larger picture can be effective, but it’s not just the Millennials that need to adapt in this situation. Millennials continue to move into management ranks, and, unlike Gen X’ers who succumbed to the existing structures with sarcastic acceptance, Millennials will push for large scale change once they are running the show. Whether it is forward thinking Gen X’ers (such as Tony Hsieh who has adopted the Holacracy for his organization) or Millennial leaders who will instigate these shifts, the Millennial workers will follow their lead.

Forward thinking organizations need to recognize these dynamics go well beyond the Agile example given above. The question to ask is not “How do we attract and retain Millennials?” but rather “How can we change as an organization to make Millennials more effective?” I think the answer will result in some wonderful new approaches to work in our society.

*I realize that Agile is a big umbrella and that Standups, Sprints, SCRUM  and other terms have very specific meanings and are not necessarily interchangeable. I use Agile to refer to the general organizing elements of these methodology. I also realize that standups are just one element of Agile methodologies but they serve as a good example of the differences between generations. Purists can flame me in the comments below.

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