News & Views

Let the young teach

by Contagious Contributor

Nadya Powell, contributor to Creative Superpowers and co-founder of consultancy Utopia, on why businesses must let the young teach if they are to survive.

Business has been predicated for far too long on the belief that the older and the wiser a person is, the better. This may have been the case 20 years ago, before the age of creative disruption, but it is certainly not the case now. As we approach 2020, those business that survive will let the young teach.

Quite a bold claim? Not when you examine the evidence.

First, knowledge, which has historically been the currency of the old and more senior, is increasingly irrelevant. The phrase Creative Destruction was coined by economist Joseph Schumpeter to refer to the non-stop economic upheaval the world must go through to survive. The result of the upheaval is what we knew to be true even two or three years ago is no longer relevant today.

According to the World Economic Forum's Future of Jobs report, 50% of subject knowledge acquired during the first year of a four-year technical degree is outdated by the time students graduate. And the resulting impact on marketeers is extreme. In 2016, I wrote a strategy for a business on how to leverage digital media for their brand. This document has no value today.

Knowledge can also be outsourced for anyone to access, which undermines its value as a retained material. In 2016, Tom Goodwin wrote in GQ a critique of the British education system and questioned whether its very purpose – instilling knowledge – has any relevancy today: ‘Do we even need knowledge in a world of Alexa and Siri? Is the skill of agility now more valuable than the gaining of knowledge?’.

Second, the young can adapt and learn faster than the old, enabling them to be fully tuned to the age of Creative Disruption. Whereas Gen Y grew up with stability, structure, and hierarchy, where employment was certain and for life, Gen Z were designed for the new world economy, knowing no different and leading the way.

And this is true not just culturally, but also biologically. In 2016 Columbia University published a study seeking to understand the teenage brain and found teenagers have an innate ability to learn that outstrips the old, as summarized by Dr. Daphna Shohamy:

“By connecting two things that aren’t intrinsically connected, the adolescent brain may be trying to build a richer understanding of its surroundings during an important stage in life.”

Last, the young are a more diverse, multi-cultural generation enabling new and different influences into their thinking which drives creativity and innovation.  Today 51% of the Inner London populous come from BAME communities and 20% of Primary School children come from homes where English is a second language.

I saw this in action during The Great British Diversity Experiment where teams of ‘designed to be diverse’ individuals competed to solve a brief set by Tesco on how to solve the problem of food wastage. The winning team comprised 10 individuals who came from South Africa, Romania, were of Asian descent, or from a Muslim heritage – they were the most diverse team. Their insight into food, including experiences of food rationing and extreme poverty, enabled them to generate truly original thinking the likes of which Tesco celebrated.

Knowledge has declined in value, the young can adapt and learn faster and their intrinsic diversity enables greater creativity. It’s time to spend more time listening to your intern than your boss….it’s time to change your business in three fundamental ways and let the young teach

Smash the hierarchy:

Experiment with Holacracy. This practice removes hierarchical pyramid structures, which are predicated on older, more ‘experienced’ voices being of more value than younger voices. Instead non-hierarchical clusters of individuals, called circles, are created and organised around the project at task. Doing this not only delivers greater agility and encourages collaboration but it also flattens out businesses, thereby enabling younger voices to be heard. You can read all about it here.

Create leapable structures. Leapable structures enable individuals to move from department to department or role to role, fast-tracking their experience and removing the barrier of age. This provides individuals with a portfolio of immediate and relevant experiences that will teach and empower everyone.

Launch Reverse Mentoring. Reverse Mentoring empowers the young to mentor the old on new and modern ways of doing business.  When combined with the CEO’s influencer skills, the young’s ability to adapt and assimilate the new will create a powerful combination.

Dismantle traditional work norms.

Empower portfolio careers. Allow the young (and old!) to work for both your business and another. Encourage them to investigate start-up opportunities, to assist someone they admire, to look outside the corporate walls. This duality of professional experience will benefit both businesses and the loyalty you will get in return will be transformative.

Embrace digital nomads. Allow anyone to work from anywhere. If your team wants to take a month to work from Bolivia or an individual wants to work in August from the South of France, allow it. Once again, this experience will teach both of you so much about different ways to do business as well as the world of remote working technology. Experiment, you might like it.

Lead through active enablement. When next in a meeting, don’t ‘lead from the front’; ask the youngest person in the room for their opinion and actively listen without prejudice rather than state your point of view first. And if they struggle to articulate themselves, be patient and give them time and room to explain. Diversity of opinion and thought is central to business success, and embracing the young, critical.

Reward according to contribution not seniority

Change the pay structure. Paying according to years in role or service no longer makes sense and instead consider remuneration structures that empower those that deliver, no matter their age or seniority. Consider this: pay every member of staff the exact same wage. Decide upon the amount by taking the mean average of all current outgoing salaries and then apply it to everyone. To create necessary pay differentials, construct a reward system based on value created for the business, not whether someone has a senior title or not.

This approach would require a well-structured continuous feedback process with a clear purpose and values embedded to ensure positive behaviours are rewarded - but imagine the talent that would flock to this business.

“The war for talent is over.  The talent won.”

Business survival is linked to getting the best talent into your business. The truth is each of the changes above will not only release the young to be as brilliant as they can be but will also will help the old “learn, unlearn and relearn”. By letting the young teach, you empower everyone to be wise and ultimately build a better business.

For more information on Creative Superpowers, click here