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The Duh Factor

By Daniel A. Rabuzzi

 

Simmering under the surface or bubbling to the top of your association are intergenerational differences: disagreements on goals and tactics, diverging ideas about who your customers are and how they should be served, worldviews that clash or maybe don't connect at all. Around the watercooler, in the chat rooms, and in the blogosphere, there's grumbling that "they just don't get it" and that "it's time for a fresh approach." Subtle but very real, the desire

Above all, embrace the Duh Factor, the experience of learning from your own ignorance, when one generation's assumed wisdom is another generation's brave new world.

for change among 20- and 30-year-olds should rank as one of the leading challenges for any association, but it rarely makes the list. Instead executives focus on concerns such as economic pressures, changes in the tax code or industry-specific regulation, and so on. All worthy issues, as long as you realize that the intergenerational challenge can't be ignored for long. Need confirmation? Just think of the more than 40 million 10 to 19 year olds (teenage population from the 2000 census) who will enter the workforce across the next decade.

In the near future, an association's strategy for tackling its list of concerns will be heavily influenced by the attitudes and perceptions of younger cohorts. More than that, the list itself will be influenced and ultimately written by those younger cohorts. So what's your association's plan for bridging the generation gap?


Measuring the chasm

Before you can bridge, you need to know how wide and deep the generation gap is at your association. And, unfortunately, direct questions about generational differences aren't likely to get you the answers you need. Instead direct queries will likely yield either polite fictions ("oh no, we all agree here") or true but insufficient demographic data ("8.3 percent of the American workforce holds a baccalaureate degree in subject X"). So before you query, listen and observe. Observe the minute details of daily life that reveal attitudes and beliefs. Listen as an anthropologist or novelist does. As you listen, humble yourself in the face of behavior you do not understand. Above all, embrace the Duh Factor, the experience of learning from your own ignorance, when one generation's assumed wisdom is another generation's brave new world.

The Duh Factor works like this: My 13-year-old nephew is playing a video game on his handheld, with his 10-year-old brother kibitzing, while I try to follow the logic of their choices as they strategize and execute at lightning speed. Watching as closely as I can, I cannot match their seemingly intuitive grasp of the game's design. In frustration, I ask how they knew to search for the treasure under that tree on that level as opposed to under this tree on this level. Assuming my question is just another bit of avuncular joshing, the nephews roll their eyes and say, "Duh, Uncle Daniel...." They don't get that I don't get it. After all, what's not to get? In their world, only weenies don't know how to navigate multidimensional matrices and beat the game, all in real time.


A large part of listening and observing for intergenerational issues at your association is seeking out the Duh Factor. Sure, it's tough. Who wants to be on the receiving end of the shaking heads and rolled eyes? But the Duh Factor will tell you a great deal about the gap between one generation's worldview and another's. Pay attention to how often you get hit with the Duh Factor. (Lately I seem to have a lot of these humbling epiphanies.) Isolated miscues are one thing, but a series will tell you something about emerging trends. Incidentally, it works both ways—that is, sometimes youth is on the receiving end. For instance, ask someone raised on e-mail what "cc" means. "Collaborative correspondence?" she might say, or "coordinated communication?" To her a piece of carbon paper is a thing of wonder, just as an iPod may be to you.

Let me share a few thoughts gleaned from recent encounters with my own intergenerational ignorance. My goal is to help promote a conversation in the association sector about the impact of intergenerational difference.

Hierarchy no more


Rebelling against the generation in power is an ageless theme. The first conflict in ancient Greek mythology pitted the young Olympians against the Titans. This time, however, the conflict may be different. From the ancient Greeks to the 1968ers, rebelling has meant replacing one set of leaders for another without fundamentally changing the nature of leadership. Now the concept of leadership itself may be under assault--rejected in favor of something new.

Younger workers seem to resist the notion of an individual or small group of individuals holding formal authority over others for any significant amount of time. When you think about it, that description pretty much captures leadership as practiced in most organizations. Twenty- and 30-somethings tend to be very self-reliant--perhaps because so many of them were latchkey kids, as a younger colleague suggested to me. For many young professionals (and those still in school), no one has ever sat at the head of the table, in part because no one sat around a table at all.

Not long ago, I asked a group of college students whether they missed family meals now that they were living on campus, and I mostly got blank stares. (There's the Duh Factor.) Most had never had meals together regularly with their families. They prepared their own meals (thank heaven for the microwave), which they ate in the privacy of their rooms, while watching their televisions, listening to their music, and electronically connecting with friends. Or else they grabbed fast food with friends in between athletics practice and piano lessons. Everything was done peer to peer, a term from information technology that epitomizes the organizational structures now emerging. Not hub and spokes, not pyramidal, but peer to peer.

Decentralized networks

Here is the corollary to the point just made. In the view of younger generations, there should be no top, and there should be no center. Instead the world should be--and with new forms of technology can be--polycentric and multilateral. After all, many young professionals have grown up in physical surroundings that embody the lack of a center and expect the same decentralization to hold true in organizational life. As Joel Garreau in Edge City (1991, Doubleday) and David Brooks in On Paradise Drive (2004, Simon & Schuster) document, suburban sprawl has given rise to exurbs that are no longer tied even tenuously to a downtown. Where many Americans live is now a node on a network that connects in many directions and does not look to any one leading entity for guidance or control.

Twenty- and 30-somethings bring an exurban mentality to their work. Authority flows from merit and consensus, not from position, protocol, and an anointed individual. Decentralized decision making is the backbone of groupware and shareware, of the open source software movement and IT users' groups, and of blogs and wikis. (Duh, if you have to ask what these are.) Everyone in the group helps make the rules, which are tested transparently and ferociously. If your code or your design doesn't work, it is dispatched quickly. And the rules are made to be changed on the fly (again through group interaction) to meet the group's needs and most especially to meet client needs. Massachusetts Institute of Technology management professor Thomas W. Malone, who explores the implications of decentralization in his new book The Future of Work (2004, Harvard Business School Press), equates the new organization of work with the core concepts of freedom. Given their membership structures, associations and other nonprofit organizations may, in fact, be better situated than corporations, universities, or government agencies to take advantage of decentralized approaches.

Meaningful work

Malone is right. Decentralization empowers everyone, which reduces the authority of a top or a center. Older generations, clinging to organizations with a top or a center, may find the self-reliance of 20- and 30-somethings glib or truculent. To many current leaders, younger cohorts don't take direction (orders?) well, have an outsized sense of entitlement, and appear to live up to the (boomer-created?) name of slacker. Yet, to me, the younger folks are the ones embodying what American leaders have proclaimed for centuries: independence, accountability, and self-discipline. Young professionals are taking older generations at their word and seeking to continue the American project of securing "the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." Older structures of authority look more and more like a distant and unresponsive parliament imposing taxes on tea.

If freedom at work is one crucial strand for many young thinkers, then so is the idea that work should have meaning outside of quarterly targets or tactics for the next legislative session. Former McKinsey partner Douglas K. Smith, in his new book On Value and Values (2004, Financial Times Prentice Hall), analyzes the search for purpose in organizational life. Smith emphasizes the need for organizations to link their good to a broader common good and identifies the increasingly empowered middle tier in organizations--what he calls the "thick we"—as the key voice for making that linkage happen. The thick we knows how to build internal consensus, and it knows that a "thin them" is not the leadership model of the future. How does your association foster its thick we?

Beyond functional

The industrial revolution was about creating things that worked for the masses. The post-industrial age assumes that things will work and requires individualized solutions that appeal to our aesthetic sense. On the street recently, I overheard a girl, perhaps 11 or 12, say to her mother, "How on earth did you live with just five channels?" This was a mutual Duh Factor. I could not hear the passing mother's response, but her body language spoke volumes. Remember when folks were happy if the rabbit-ear antennas brought in a black-and-white picture, so that everyone could watch the same few offerings? Like the family dinner, that low threshold of satisfaction is long gone.

What this means for associations is that programs and communication cannot merely work, they must attract, delight, and inspire. Many younger colleagues are members of or inspired by what Richard Florida calls the "creative class"--no longer a fringe but the heart of innovation in the United States. As Daniel Pink puts it, the master's degree in fine arts is the new MBA.

If this is true, then your association needs to reach its constituency through multiple channels, tickle all of the senses, and motivate, not just inform. Constituency? No, make that constituencies. Maybe you need a Nick at Nite for one particular subset of your membership, a telenovela for another, and an ESPN2 for a third. But even that may be the wrong model for the new generations, because it assumes a hierarchical broadcast. Instead, emulate video games by blurring the line between author and audience. Make your communication interactive, bringing in the audience as your coauthor. Otherwise, aren't you living with five channels in fuzzy black and white?

Mix and match

One size does not fit all. Younger generations are eclectic, blending elements from different traditions in pursuit of the new. Hip-hop artists are masters of this, constantly breaking the mold. Have you heard rai from North Africa or bhangra from the Punjab? They're being blended into our beats, creating fusions in a global open source musical movement. The old model of one controlling source, say, Tin Pan Alley or Hollywood, has been replaced by a multifaceted network in which competitive consensus has the deciding voice. If your beat doesn't sway the audience, it is dispatched swiftly. The same is true in graphics, as Japanese anime cartoons and video games emanating from South Korea's baang interactive salons mesh with traditional American forms yielding hybrids such as The Matrix movies.

Young professionals bring the collage mentality to work. Irreverent, yes, but also innovative. This mentality is what drives a 30-something to question why the newsletter always has four columns, with the letter from the chairman in the upper left-hand corner, and drives the 20-something to ask why the association needs a paper-based newsletter at all. Mixing and matching means that traditional workday and project schedules, with their linearity and uniformity, may be criticized. Individuals used to interspersing work with personal activities, for example, will scratch their heads at your association's lack of a telecommuting policy.

Well, duh, some will say. That's how we've always done things around here. And that may be true as far as it goes. But this response means that your association will dwindle into irrelevance as fewer and fewer young women and men join. And brace yourselves, because the trends described here will get stronger as the babies of the boomers come of age. Microsoft's Diana Oblinger has examined the attitudes of the millennials, those born since 1982, and finds them even more flexible, demanding, and inquisitive than generation X. E-mail being so '90s, the millennials define themselves through instant messaging. Can your association keep pace and turn itself into what Howard Rheingold dubs a "smart mob"?

Well, duh, I say. Of course you can. The reassuring news for all of us is that we've been here before. I'm thinking of the 1920s, when electrification, industrialization, and mass immigration led to new forms of urban life, producing jazz, abstract art (among other things, the collage was born in that decade), and various types of new thinking. The generation gap--think of the immediate Victorian-era forebears—was alarming. Yet the gap was closed, and America made it through the far tougher times of the 1930s and the 1940s better than any of its peer nations. No gap was closed then or will get closed now, however, without careful listening and observing of the differences between the
generations. Association leadership, however defined, must be alert to the small but telling details of difference--to the Duh Factor that will yield insight and propel change.

 
Daniel A. Rabuzzi is CEO and president of The Leader to Leader Institute, New York City.

 

Reprinted with permission, copyright July 2004, American Society of Association Executives, Washington, D.C.
 

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