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Letters to a Young Manager

How many royals lost their heads?, #432
LTYM > Managing People II

Dear Sophie,
That was an interesting observation about your new intern. He seems to solving problems in ways you did not expect.

When he was a young teenager, I ask him to participate in a thought exercise. He took pride in being a consummate multi-tasker. I’ve seen him carry on five Instant Messenger (IM) conversations, play a video game with someone from Australia, and research a paper for school at the same time. I wondered when he had time to think. The more I thought about it, the more I asked myself if the way students think today may be changing. Was problem solving moving from individual synthesis to communal answers?

I decided to try an experiment with him. The question: how many royals lost their heads by the guillotine in the French revolution? (This got his attention!) I wanted to know how he would go about finding the answer to the problem.  Here's the dialog:

"How would you go about solving a problem," I asked?
“What problem,” he inquired?
“One your teacher gave you, for homework.”
“Which teacher? (He is a teenager, after all.)
“How about history. What are you studying?
“The French Revolution.”
“OK. How would you go about finding the answer to this question: How many famous people were executed by the guillotine during French revolution?" (Remember, he’s fourteen.)

We were on the phone, so I asked him to describe what he was doing. His first stop was to go to Wikipedia and look up 
guillotine. (If you’d like to read along, click here: ) He read the first paragraph, but didn’t find what he wanted. 

His next stop was Yahoo Questions. He entered “guillotine famous people.” (See ). The first answer was about a wax museum (Anyone can post answers.) He didn’t see anything else on that page that was better.

Next, he went back to Wikipedia, paged-down a couple of times and read about the 
Reign of Terror. Listed there were Robespierre, Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI, each victim of the guillotine. He then informed me that Joseph Guillotine was not the inventor, nor did he die by its blade. Guillotine died of natural causes. Bonus points. 

Total time browsing, about three minutes. Fast. But very much a solo performance.
“What if you couldn’t find the answer on-line?
“Never happened.”
“But if it did?”
“I’d email my teacher.”
“What about essay assignments?”
“If it’s boring, I write a paragraph, take a break and IM my friends; then write another paragraph, etc.”
“If you’re not bored?”
“Then I space out on it.” He blocks out everything else and focuses on the mission.

As this example shows, we would be wrong if we concluded that this teenager (or your intern) was distracted and not thinking things through. Their thought process is different. And it's resourceful. Let's approach them with an open mind and seek to learn.
Sincerely yours,

[1] Much of this story is based on my Blog post, in 2008 while I was on sabbatical at Tuck/Dartmouth, here:


The Internet generation thought process is different

Discussion Questions:

1) How many sources did the teenager mention?
2) How many of these sources do you use? How many could you use?
3) What are some of the advantages of my son's thought process? What are the disadvantages?

For Further Reading:

1) See the story "Watch Your Kids," Story #63

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