Subtitle: Why flattening org charts boosts your credibilityThis post is #4 in an collaborative eight part series by Brad Szollose and I about how culture shapes technology.
Unlike other generations, Digital Natives believe that expertise comes directly from doing, not from position or education. This is not hubris; it’s a reflection both their computer experience and dramatic improvements in technology usability.
If you follow Joel Spolsky’s blog, “Joel on Software,” you know about a term he uses when describing information architects obsessed with the abstract and not the details; Architecture Astronauts—so high up above the problem that they might as well be in space. “They’re astronauts because they are above the oxygen level, I don’t know how they’re breathing.”
For example, a Digital Native is much better positioned to fly a military attack drone than a Digital Immigrant. According to New Scientist, March 27, 2008, the military is using game controllers for drones and robots because they are “far more intuitive.” Beyond the fact that the interfaces are intuitive to them, Digital Natives have likely logged hundreds of hours flying simulated jets under trying battle conditions. Finally, they rightly expect that they can access all the operational parameters and technical notes about the plane with a Google search.
Our new workforce is ready to perform like none other in history.
Being able to perform is just the tip of the iceberg; having the right information is the more critical asset. A Digital Native knows information (and technology) is very fast moving and fluid. It also comes from all directions … after all it’s The Information Age. This is a radical paradigm shift. Harvard Researcher David Weinberger highlights in his book Too Big to Know that people are not looking up difficult technical problems in a book or even relying on their own experiences; they query their social networks and discover multiple valid solutions. The diversity of their sources is important to them, and an established hierarchy limits their visibility; inversely, they see leaders who build strict organizational hierarchies as cutting off their access to information and diversity.
Today’s thought worker is on the front lines of the technological revolution. They see all the newness, data, and interaction with a peer-to-peer network. Remember all that code on the screen in the movie The Matrix? You get the picture.
To a Digital Native, the vice presidents of most organizations are business astronauts floating too high above the world to see what’s really going on but feeling like they have perfect clarity. Who really knows the truth? Mission Control or Major Tom? This is especially true with the acceleration of business that we are experiencing. While the Astronaut in Chief is busy ordering the VPs to move the mountains out of the way, the engineers at ground control have already collaborated on a solution to leverage an existing coal mine and sell coal as a byproduct.
The business hierarchy of yesterday worked for a specific reason: workers needed to just follow rules, keep their mouth shut, and obey. Input, no matter how small, was seen as intrusive and insubordinate … and could get one fired. Henry Ford wanted an obedient worker to mass manufacture goods. The digital age requires a smarter worker because, in today’s world, we make very sophisticated stuff that does not conform to simple rules. Responsibility, troubleshooting, and decision-making has moved to the frontlines. This requires open-source style communication.
Do not confuse the Astronaut problem as a lack of respect for authority.
Digital Natives respect informational authority, not positional. For Digital Natives, authority is flexible. They have experience forming and dissolving teams to accomplish a mission. The mission leader is the one with the right knowledge and skills for the situation, not the most senior or highest scoring. In Liquid Leadership, Brad explains that Digital Natives are not expecting managers to solve team problems; they are looking to their leadership to help build, manage, and empower their teams to do it themselves.
So why not encourage more collaboration with a singular mission in mind: develop a better end product? In a world that is expanding at such mercurial speed, a great idea can come from anywhere! Even from a customer! So why not remember to include customers in the process?
Who is Leroy Jenkins?
This viral video is about a spectacular team failure from one individual (Leroy Jenkins) who goes rogue during a team massively multi-player game. This is a Digital Natives’ version of the ant and grasshopper parable: “Don’t pull a Leroy Jenkins on us—we need to plan this out.” Youtu.be/LkCNJRfSZBU
Think about it like this: Working as a team is like joining a quest.
If comparing work to a game scenario sounds counterintuitive then let’s reframe the situation. We may have the same destination and goals, but we are from very different backgrounds. Some of us speak different languages, have different needs and wants. Some went to MIT, some to community college. Some came through Internet startups, others through competitors. Big, little, educated, and smart. Intense and humble. Outgoing and introverted. Diversity of perspective creates stronger teams.
This also means that leadership roles rotate according to each mission.
This is the culture of the gaming universe. Missions and quests are equivalent to workplace tasks accomplished and point to benchmarks achieved. Each member excepts to earn a place through tasks and points. This is where Digital Natives’ experience becomes advantage. They expect to advance in experience and skills. When you adapt the workplace to these expectations the Digital Natives thrive.
Leaders need to come down to earth and remove the spacesuit.
A leader at the top needs to stay connected to that information and disruption. Start by removing your helmet. Breathe the same oxygen as the rest of us and give us solutions that can be used here on planet earth.
Jeff Attwood, founder of the community-based FAQ site Stack Overflow, has been very articulate about using game design to influence how he builds communities around sharing knowledge. We recommend reading his post about “Building Social Software for the Anti-Social” on his blog, CodingHorror.com.