Why I Like Working with Summer Interns, Millennials and iGeneration

My memories took me back to my late teen years- to dinners hosted by my friend's father during my undergraduate days. Whenever he had work near our vicinity, he would visit our college. He would host us for special meals at the guesthouse away from the student kitchen. One of the early dinners, I remember distinctly sitting next to him and at the end of conversation I was blown away. He had a zest for life and his mind and heart could openly embrace and relate to the youngsters. He made a lasting impression. During walk back to my dorm ("Bhavan"), I decided that I would imbibe that quality when I grew older.

Little did I know that it would pay rich dividends in my life in unexpected ways.

The beauty of a fresh mind - Disruptive Innovative

At work, I always look forward to summers. Summers are the time I get an opportunity to work with interns, many of them are millennials and recent ones are iGeneration. Some experienced folks look at internships as societal obligations, some others give the interns well defined existing business operational projects, I do neither. I look at interns as possessing something unique that is truly a one-way street - freshness of thought.

Why? I quickly learnt that a big drag on innovative thought is our own prisms - our own experiences. Learning is one of the key skills that has moved mountains and leapfrogged mankind. The flip, unlearning is hard, conscious choice especially for things that become second nature like our own work experience.

The best way to explain how I think about this is through a picture below. In life, especially at work, we strive towards key objective(s) -maximize outcome and/or minimize wastage. The graph example is one such construct. In our eager early days, we strive towards the first few valleys (A or B) - after a while we get either comfortable or we experience the walls of the valley and get used to it. In optimization jargon speak these are called local minima.

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A millennial does not feel the gravity of the constraints and in combination with a can do attitude leads to truly innovative practical solutions. My mantra - work with them to frame the business challenge, get out of their way and they often lead you to global minima (Point C) in the best case or a better local minima (from A to B).

Apparently, human genes as they evolve, sometimes create random combinations that take the gene pool out of the comfort zone into newer areas. In fact, it is mimicked in genetic algorithms (an optimization technique) to move away from local minima to global minima.

Drawing parallels, summer interns and millennials have provided impetus to pop out of self-inflicted "experience" slumber in the local minima valley. They propelled many projects into new green zones and lifted the collective thought in immeasurable ways.

They are truly the engines behind numerous innovation awards at my previous employer of 13 years - a large international energy conglomerate.

Disruptive Innovation - People Side

The best word that symbolizes every new generation into the work force is "disruptive innovative" - Harvard Prof. Clayton Christensen's innovation concept applied to people. Let us re-look at his famous graph with a different lens - people side.
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(photo credit: Clay Christensen/Innosight)

The blue line are the blue chip companies with people who are experienced with status quo and understand the constraints, very well. They are kings of incremental innovation - he calls them sustaining innovation. The green line are nimble young companies that enter the market without the experience pedigree of the blue chips and yet disrupt the market completely - just like interns in big organizations. Take the electric utility industry, for every cash cow existing utility that go back centuries, there are the new green lines - Nest, oPower, Tendril, Bidgely and many more that are a product of the Silicon Valley- far way from the traditional bastions of power experience.

My Tribute

During those wonderful dinners during my undergraduate days, my friend's father molded a thought - how to look at life from the eyes of youngsters. Later in life, my embrace of how summer interns and millennials think and work has paid rich dividends in my professional life. What I brought was a business opportunity framework. With their fresh, disruptive innovative approach, they sculpted new global optima that were more rewarding than I could dream of. I really would like to thank every summer intern and millennial I have worked with.

Just like my friend's father, each of us had someone elder in our life - an uncle, an aunt, family friends, parents, well wisher and older cousins who could relate to us when we were young. They shaped our thoughts and were leading lights in bridging the generational valleys. Today, I would like to join to salute each one of those movers and shakers who believed in (y)our young minds and are instrumental for (y)our success today.

I am very interested in hearing their influence on you in the comments section.