The Importance of Access (Culture 401 Series)
This post is part of a new series investigating workplace culture at a more advanced level (hence the “401” moniker, like you only get access to this course your senior year…), digging into what we see emerging as the “essentials” of culture in the 21st century. Beware, these posts are often a bit longer.
One of the most common (and unsupported) complaint against Millennials is that they are spoiled, coddled, and otherwise unable to deal with the real world. You’ll read stories of helicopter parents who accompany their kids on job interviews, and you’ll hear a LOT about how Millennials got trophies just for participating, so they can’t handle negative feedback and they don’t understand competition, winning, and losing.
All of that is bunk, by the way, and it says a heck of a lot more about the Boomers and Xers doing the complaining than it does about the Millennials. First off, if the Millennials are spoiled, who do you think were the ones that spoiled them?! If anything, the Millennials should be complaining about us old folks! And do you think the trophies really ruined them? Do you watch professional sports? The Olympics? Those are ALL Millennials, and they seem to be handling competition, winning, and losing just fine.
Those complaints completely missed the point—an important point, actually—about how the Millennials really are different. The truth is, Millennials got a lot more attention as children, particularly compared to their immediate predecessors, Generation X. But it wasn’t about coddling, it was about elevating the status of children in society. When Millennials were children, adults spoke to them on a first name basis, and negotiated with them to meet their needs and help solve their problems. It may sound odd, but it’s like we treated them as if they were little human beings (because, um, they ARE little human beings). That simply didn’t happen in previous generations, not to the same extent anyway.
So what does this mean for the world of work? It means Millennials are bringing a new twist to traditional hierarchy. While I think they have no problem understanding hierarchy and power differences, Millennials are expecting one thing that previous generations didn’t: access and influence on people who have more power than them.
And that issue—access—goes way beyond Millennials. We have all experienced the total and global revolution in access to information that is called the internet. And in that context, when we look at traditional management and it’s near obsession with controlling access (access to leaders, access to information, access to strategic decisions, access to other departments), I think we should be quite alarmed. I think the future of work will be built around open access.
So how do you build an organization around the concept of an all-access pass?
It starts with transparency. Many organizations are embracing open-book management, where they share all financial details with everyone in order to get smarter decisions throughout the system. Morningstar, the tomato-processing company, is famous for not only doing this, but also training everyone to understand profitability down to the individual team level, thus they let all their people buy whatever equipment they need, without needing approval. Or you could make all of your project management information available to everyone, like Menlo Innovations does. That way if people fall behind, their colleagues see this and jump in to help them.
All-access obviously has implications for organizational structure as well. I think this ties to my last Culture 401 post about systems and being “middle-less.” I’ve never met a middle management group that didn’t complain about not having enough information. The structure is a natural impediment to transparency. But this is also about access to decision makers (per the conversation about Millennials, above).
And in that vein, maybe we need to re-think the “open office” design movement. Many seem to think that putting everyone at communal tables in one big room will create instant collaboration, when in some cases it simply causes people to reserve the conference rooms two years out and use them as offices. I think the core element of an open office is about access—it creates the structural pathway for instant access to everyone (in terms of both hierarchy and departments). So the real challenge is not the office design, it’s the changes in approach and behaviors you’ll need to instill in your people in order take advantage of that new access.
We’re developing a pilot project to help organizations expand access within their culture and adjust their practices accordingly. If you’re interested in trying this out with us, let me know. Also, if you feel like you’ve already mastered the access issue, also let me know, because I’d love to interview you.