It’s Not You, It’s Us: Why Millennials Just Problem-Solve Differently

A few weeks ago, I was conducting an interview for Nonprofit Performance Magazine with Joan Kuhl, the founder of Why Millennials Matter, for an upcoming issue of our magazine that is focusing on Millennials in the Nonprofit World. Joan made an interesting comment. She stated that, rather than vertical problem-solving (in which a subordinate goes to a manager to seek resources and assistance with solving a problem), Millennials have become adept at, and more comfortable with, horizontal problem-solving (or turning to peers inside or outside of the organization to come up with solutions to the issue) in organizations.

I didn’t hesitate a second in acknowledging an inherent connection to that statement. The reality is, as a Millennial, I get this. It just clicks. As we talked more about this it became apparent to me that there are a number of reasons that Millennials opt for this approach.

The longer my mind got pulled down this rabbit-hole, the more I was struck by the profound truth about how Millennials problem-solve. Rather than the “we just do” response of the old Apple Jacks commercial. I found it to be very important to examine why it is that we actually do think differently. What events and realities have influenced this paradigm.

5 Reasons Why Millennials are Pre-Disposed to Horizontal Problem-Solving

1) Lack of resources in many organizations (post-9/11 & post-recession):

During the two most recent economic slumps organizations faced many cost-cutting realities. One area in which many organizations chose to reduce payroll was in the mid-management role. With less direct support, and often-more work in organizations being the norm that many Millennnials have entered the workforce with, they are less inclined to even expect that a manager would be the one that they would got to for help fixing a problem. Instead many of them turn to their colleagues who likely have a similar experiences.

2) Use of teams in school from an early age:

Sure the participation ribbon is what is often used to denigrate the Millennial, but it was the use of teams for problem-solving, for discussion, for developing a presentation, and for a variety of other things that may be the most defining young-reality for our generation. We are quite adept at dealing with the nuances of teamwork and collective functioning to the point that this is where we often will turn when issues that can’t be handled on our own arise (and even some that can be handled on our own, but may end up with a better answer if we collaborate.)

3) Inclination to see new methods/paradigms to solve problems:

We have seen quite a lot in our relatively-short lives. Thanks to our birth in the age of the technology-explosion we have found ourselves as active-participants with constant change. As we function in our work situations, we often look at the “previous reality” and think in terms of what could/should be next. Just as we converse with friends about what the next update of iOS or our new Samsung Galaxy should include, we do the same thing at work when we dream about new sustainable answers for problems facing our organizations.

4) Desire to be part of the solution:

Quite likely connected to our desire to see new methodology, is the desire to own (or at least be a major player in) the solution. As Millennials we like to be active players, the world that we have grown up and matured in (yes, we have) allowed for us to be active in outcomes — whether it was “choose your own adventure” books, video games, or as designers or members of the new (social) media. We enjoy feeling like we can bring impact to our world, so we want to be part of the positive growth that will come from our new thinking.

5) Belief that much of leadership is out of sync with the reality of the organization:

Like our brothers and sisters in the previous generation we do have some level of skepticism, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t see importance and value in leadership from other generations — we just tend to think it is often out of sync with the new realities of our world. We tend to value cooperation and collaboration, diversity and inclusion, and bringing a better world for all stakeholders — not just stockholders. As such, we see many of our leaders as being out of sync with the new realities of our world.

It isn’t that we can’t understand, desire to disrespect, or even want to overlook the wisdom that may come from leaders at higher levels, but for many of us Millennials we are wired to co-create and problem-solve with our peers. With most estimates describing the tipping point of the Millennial generation becoming the majority in the workplace in the not too distant future, it is imperative that organizations understand this “new” type of thinking. Due to our education, the economy, and technology, we see the world differently. And we aren’t going away!