Millennials and Scrum, made for each another

by Lyssa Adkins on May 23, 2010

This year, I encountered my first classroom-full of people who had never worked waterfall.  Now, I don’t talk a lot about waterfall versus Scrum when I teach the Certified ScrumMaster course, just enough to set the stage for why Scrum arose when it did.  I show some data about the appalling failure rates of projects that we started to recognize as “normal” in the mid-1990’s and when I do, I usually hear some quiet moans of recognition from the crowd.  No moans.  When I looked at the people in the class anew I realized that I was looking into a sea of fresh faces.  Brilliant, motivated, wielding power the likes of which I have never experienced – and babies.   I said, “Who here knows what I’m talking about when I say ‘waterfall.'”  No one spoke.  I quickly explained waterfall – the phases, the handoffs, the difficulty incorporating change – and one of them piped up, “Well, that’s just stupid. Who would ever choose to work that way in the world we live in?”

Enter the Millennials.

This generation has just hit the workplace in a big way and, compared with their forebears, “unruly” does not even begin to describe them.  As I type this, I think about my own daughter who is part of the tail-end of this generation.  She can hold three text conversations at once.  Mind you, each of the text conversations includes multiple people so she routinely “talks” to 100 people at at time.  New technology?  No big.  She’s got it figured out in two minutes flat.  She devours electronics like candy.  And don’t get me started on the attitude.  Her negotiation skills rival those quick-thinking lawyers on Law and Order and she actually believes she has a voice in things that affect her.  Oh, and she’s been told that she can be anything.  And she believes it.  That’s how I’ve raised her and that’s how most of the other 80 million parents of Millennials have raised their kids.  Did you get that number?   It was a big one.  We expect the 2010 census to tell us that the Millennials – 80 million strong – have surpassed the number of baby boomers.  They’re coming out of the woodwork.  And they want stuff.  And this being the first generation of people who don’t take kindly to “When I want your opinion I’ll give it to you” they are likely to get it.

My friendly Delta Sky Magazine provided some of the high points of what they want and why they’re rocking the workplace from the book,  The M-Factor, by Lynne Lancaster and David Stillman, experts in the subject of generations in the workplace.  In a nutshell, they’re on a search for meaning in their lives and this extends to their work lives.  Scrum is made for them.  Here’s the list of what they’re after (excerpted from The M-Factor) and why Scrum fits them to a tee:

Millennials want to make a difference in the world and want to feel they are contributing.  They have to know that what they’re working on adds up to “the greater good.”  Specifically, how it fits into their company’s overall strategy and how it gives back to the world.  Scrum exposes work for work’s sake (W4W), as 4-Hour Workweek author Timothy Ferriss puts it.  It allows us to cut through the W4W and bureaucratic red tape to get down to the “real work.”  Scrum even asks executives to prioritize the work of the company.  Given that projects done with Scrum (ok, with Scrum done well) do not fail, we no longer need executives to tell us all the things they would like to have, we just need them to tell us the most important things that will make a difference.  The Millennials will be calling for this in record numbers.  Listen up.

Millennials want to be innovators. Think back to their ability to ingest new technology like it was the latest fashion craze (wait, for them, technology is the latest fashion craze).  Innovation and “that’s soooo yesterday” go hand in hand and this makes them comfortable with the idea of constant change.  After all, it’s the world they grew up in.  And “while they’ve had a lot of structure in their lives around what they are going to do, they’ve had quite a bit of leeway to decide how they want to do things.” (The M-Factor)   Sounds like a healthy Scrum team member to me.

Millennials want to be heard.  Millennials will not wait to “climb the ladder” to “earn” the right to be heard.  They don’t view being heard as something to be earned, it’s just something they expect.  If you can put aside your “That’s not fair!  I played the game to get my chance to have a voice and be taken seriously!  They have to pay their dues, too!” outrage, you may consider that, if people’s ideas are our greatest asset, then the Millennials are right.   Being heard is not a privilege, it’s a basic standard of human decency and the current that innovation rides.  Notice that Millennials don’t necessarily care if “their idea” is the one ultimately accepted.  They just want to play.  Scrum teams that build their collaboration muscle learn this same thing: all voices heard yields more and better ideas, maybe even ones that will rock the world.

Millennials want to know they’re succeeding. This is a generation raised with standardized testing and charts with gold stars on them for jobs well done.  Millennials want to know that they’re on track to accomplish a goal and they expect to be recognized for it when they are.  I bet they just love the Story Board and the frequent chances to show what they built in the Sprint Review.  But be warned, this is a generation that has not failed much and may not be good at receiving feedback.  No worries, a good agile coach can take care of that by teaching the team members how to give and receive feedback in-the-moment.  Think about it, has any generation really been good at receiving feedback?  Probably not, but prior generations may have been more willing to “shut up and go along” as they toiled toward the privilege to be seen, heard and noticed.  ‘Nuff said.

This generation wants to express who they are through work. They come to the workplace with their own personal “brand” already in place.  They find meaning in self-definition and self-expression.  Their Boomer and Gen X parents who didn’t get the corner office as a reward for “going along” all those years have encouraged their Millennials to do better than they did.  So, if they cannot express themselves at your company they will move on to another company.  Oh yeah, because they already know that company loyalty has long been dead, on both sides of the equation.  The authors of M-Factor warn that conflicts can arise when Millennials do not respect the status quo just because we have workplaces where “norms exist for good reasons.”  Good guess, but not exactly right.  Through the impediments that Scrum exposes, we see that many company norms do not exist for good reasons.  At least, not for good reasons that still exist today.

Unruly though they may be, I welcome the Millennials to the workplace.  We need the ideas they bring and we need them doing exactly what they’re doing – making us stop our status quo-defending, ladder-climbing mania to give them what they want.  In the process, they will show us what excelling in this century looks like.

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