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Designing an Operating Model for Multiple Generations

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The hypothesis that different birth cohorts or generations have different demands of their workplace is not new: The idea was certainly being discussed in the 1920s and those discussions have continued ever since. It is only in the last 20 to 30 years that this has become a regular topic of debate across all channels with hypothetical comparisons of generations that have been labeled, among other things as Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, Millennials, Gen Z, iGen, Centennials, and so on. The debate has certainly created a climate of uncertainty within organizations which has ranged from ‘generational differences’ being blamed for poor performance to the idea that we should be designing different work environments for different generations. The good news, professionals, is that the raising of the profile of the many hypotheses about differences has led to serious empirical research into these supposed differences.


A recent report concluded that there is little valid evidence of generational differences in the workplace. However, there is evidence that life-span differences can account for much of the reported differences. An ambitious 20-year-old in the 1970s looked forward to being a senior manager in his — and I do mean his — own plush office where he could smoke and take a drink from his personal bar. A 20-year-old today has quite different expectations, but so has our 20-year-old from the 70s who is now a leader in their 60s and has (hopefully) moved forward with society. Comparing what a 20-year-old in the 1970s expected of work with what a modern 20-year-old expects will expose huge differences. But these differences should not form the basis of the design of work today. There will always be individual differences within and across age groups and these, of course, need to be addressed at an individual level. But redesigning an operating model requires a collaborative effort across age groups to address the needs of the whole system.

When an organization makes a decision that it is time to review and redesign its operating model, it doesn’t do so lightly. It makes this decision because all the indicators are showing that the current model isn’t “fit-for-purpose” — the operating model is not delivering outcomes that are aligned to the current strategic intent of the organization. Rarely are generational or age differences the reason for the model not being fit-for-purpose, but they could become one of the causes of a newly designed operating model not being fit-for-purpose.

Starting a redesign effort from a premise that, at any point in time, different generations have different needs will only result in an outcome that doesn’t meet the needs of anyone, least of all the customers and stakeholders. Instead, use common ground to address differences throughout the redesign process. Jennifer Deal from the Center for Creative Leadership documented over seven years of research which included surveys of more than 3,000 corporate leaders in her book Retiring the Generation Gap: How Employees Young & Old Can Find Common Ground, from which the AMA summarized:

  • All generations have similar values. For example, family tops the list for all the generations. The most striking result of the research, Deal says, is how similar the generations are in the values that matter most, particularly when it comes to what they want from work.
  • Everyone wants respect. However, the generations don’t define respect in the same way. In the study, older individuals talked about respect in terms of “giving my opinions the weight I believe they deserve,” while younger respondents characterized respect as “listen to me, pay attention to what I have to say.”
  • Leaders must be trustworthy. Different generations do not have notably different expectations of their leaders. Above all else, people of all generations want leaders they can trust.
  • Nobody likes change. The stereotype is that older people resist change while younger people embrace it. These assumptions don’t stand up under the research, which found that people from all generations are uncomfortable with change. Resistance to change has nothing to do with age; it has to do with how much you stand to gain or lose as a result of the change.
  • Everyone wants to learn. Learning and development were among the issues brought up most frequently by people of all generations. Everyone wants to learn and to ensure they have the training and development to do their job well.
  • Everyone likes feedback. According to the research, everyone wants to know how they are doing and to learn how they can do better.

Additionally, we know that if people “own what they create,” they will adapt easily to changes they have been involved in shaping than they will to changes that are pushed upon them without involvement — and this is true across age groups. Traditional change management approaches designed to implement a change that has been developed by the (older) senior leaders will not work. Leaving the design of a new operating model/workplace to (older) senior leaders will result in the imposition of a sub-optimized solution across all age groups/generations.

All the research and practical experience of designing and implementing new operating models tell us that success comes from taking a truly collaborative approach with meaningful involvement of as many people as possible from all age groups. Allowing multiage design teams to address potential conflicts in the design of a new operating model as it evolves and to develop solutions will result in a model that is pulled for by all age groups/generations.


About the Author

Peter Turgoose 

Peter Turgoose is a senior consultant at ON THE MARK, a leading global organization design consultancy.

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