Text posted Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Today’s new young employees are always in a hurry to advance to the next skill set or the next task, responsibility, or project – even when they seem clearly not ready from your perspective.
Listen to one engineering group leader in a nuclear weapons research laboratory: “They want to step into bigger roles much sooner than they are ready. They look at me playing this role and they think ‘Yeah, I could do that.’ But they don’t realize how much there is to this role, how many different responsibilities are involved, and what expertise and experience are necessary to handle all those responsibilities.” From the standpoint of many managers, of course, each new task, responsibility, and project Gen Yers want to take on looks like a huge bundle of best practices and standard operating procedures to learn, pitfalls to avoid, resources to command, and judgment calls to be made. Managers tell me all the time, “In our line of work, it’s especially challenging to give inexperienced young people significant responsibilities. Perhaps a new young person could learn the knowledge and skill necessary to do one of these tasks and responsibilities, or two, or three, or four. But the role they want is too complex to hand over in its entirety to someone without several years of experience.” I promise you, I’ve been told that by leaders in supermarkets and nuclear weapons labs alike – and everybody in between. We call this the “meaningful roles problem.”
The same engineering group leader from that nuclear weapons research laboratory shared this success story with me: “I learned from the mechanics here who are short-staffed. They teach new mechanics to do one simple task very well. Then after the new mechanics do that task for a few days, they add another simple task, and so on. After a few weeks, the new mechanics have a dozen things they can do pretty well, and they are full-fledged members of the team, but with a much smaller repertoire. The really ambitious ones keep adding one skill after another and build pretty big repertoires within a few months. So I decided to do that with my new project engineers. I give them one tiny little piece of the project. I’ll sit with them and teach, then let them have a tiny little piece of work. When they get that tiny little piece of work done, I’ll teach them another piece. And another. It is very effective with the new young engineers. They actually like it this way. They are doing less, but they feel like they are doing more.”