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Agile for the generations – can agile bridge a workplace generation gap?

As an enterprise agile coach, helping teams and organisations transform from the more traditional corporate way of working to a lean and agile one, I get to observe how the different generations embrace (or not) the transformation process. The reactions can run the gamut from excitement to scepticism and apprehension. Lately, I’ve found myself wondering and discussing with other people, if agile, as a way of working, has a better fit with any of the different generations. Firstly I want to say that I’m not a fan of typecasting people into a category based on when they were born – millennials, gen X and baby boomers, however I have observed (and there has been much written) how different generations behave in the current workplace. One could say that “millennials” are agile by nature. Agile encourages a flexibility and a freedom that speaks to the heart of this younger generation. They are driven by an individual sense of purpose and will go into a new job quickly and easily looking for an organisation that aligns with them. They are eager to learn and explore and breathe some adventure into the 9-to-5 grind while leaving a legacy behind. “Baby boomers” on the other hand, have seen and done it all, and weathered many storms through an unwavering loyalty to their organisation. They may hear the word “agile” or “transformation” and feel fearful that their methodical and process-driven way of working will come under scrutiny. And there is also my generation, Gen X. Have we become the middle child? We may share the mindset of millennials; we are resourceful and enjoy the freedom and autonomy, yet we are still as independent and competitive as the baby boomers. This year, I got to experience first-hand the frustrations and the nuances between these generations’ ways of working. I observed how complicated the conversation can get with the baby boomers passionate about making their point, the Gen X wishing the boomers would make the point faster, meanwhile the Gen Y in the room have already moved onto the next topic. However, what I have also got to observe, is how agile has helped create a common language and a common ground where these different styles can coexist together in harmony. Through the process of introducing some agile tools like visualisation of work, prioritisation sessions, stand-ups or retrospectives; I have seen how the baby boomers’ need for things to be orderly with a clear visibility on ownership can be met; but also how the millennials’ craving for purpose, short-term impact and flexibility can be satisfied. I’ve witnessed biases be removed and labels disappear, all thanks to the open communication, the trust and respect that develops when the agile mindsets and tools are introduced to a team. Agile ways of working is not a trend. Its humanistic approach has been the secret ingredient to helping teams re-engage, and to be re-inspired in the work that they do. Age or generational differences are no longer a factor. Success in teams is not age dependent, as people come together to share their experiences, learn from one another, ask questions and work towards their common goals. I used to think that the generational gap was the main challenge for successful agile transformations, having equally seen baby boomers embrace agile and millennials resist it. This has led me believe that age has little to do with it and in fact, now I feel the opposite. Where a successful transformation can typically break down is with the leadership style –regardless of which decade the leader (and team) was born in. But more about this topic in another blog… Written by: Catherine Russell
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