Welcome to the Innovation Front End. I'm Don Ross and this is my blog that focuses on how companies can do a better job during the early phases of the innovation process. Companies that are the best at driving organic growth through innovation in products, services or technologies have a dedicated front end process in place. The following entries capture some of the best ideas, theory, and practice of the Innovation Front End. "

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Too Old to Innovate?

In the digital world we live in, innovation often seems to be the province of the young. If you’re old enough to remember what it was like to have a corded telephone in your kitchen, the popular assumption is that you have too many cobwebs in your head to do any genuinely creative thinking. Happily for those of us who spent our teenage years tethered to a phone jack, a recent flurry of research has confirmed our (often superior) capacity for innovation.

Newsweek recently reported in their article, “The Golden Age of Innovation” that “despite stereotypes of entrepreneurs as fresh-faced youngsters, new research has found that older workers are more likely to innovate than their under-35 counterparts.” Here are a few highlights:

  • The highest rate of entrepreneurship in the U.S. is in the 55-64 age group
  • People over 55 are almost twice as likely to start a successful business as those 20-34
  • Since 1996, the entrepreneurship rate has actually dropped among people under 35

Even within established companies, older workers may be the strongest contributors to innovation. The Newsweek article reports that one German company commissioned an internal review of its continuous improvement system, expecting to justify its early retirement program. The opposite happened. It turned out that older workers’ ideas for process improvements produced significantly higher returns than the ideas offered by younger workers. The early retirement program is being phased out.

So what does this mean for innovation teams? As always, diversity is critical. The most productive teams embrace the contributions from older and younger employees alike. While the younger set may make valuable contributions based on their comparatively recent education in the newest tools and techniques, older workers have years of accumulated expertise in their fields, an understanding of customer needs based on decades of observation and feedback, and, ideally, a willingness to share their knowledge. Employers can encourage this sharing by acknowledging its value. BMW’s mixed-age team and Siemens “cross-mentoring” are attempts to bring younger and older employees together for maximum impact. Perhaps that is only a start.

In this post-recession environment, many workers who had been approaching retirement are now considering staying employed well beyond their previously planned exit dates. “How-to” take advantage of the older workers’ experience, expertise and knowledge, overcome the stereotypes, and drive innovation will be the next challenge for the innovative organization. Organizing, training, and coaching team members and their management sponsors to take advantage of diversity, young and older, should be part of the approach.

Age diversity is a resource that every company aspiring to innovation excellence should embrace.