When it comes to innovation, are you likely to get better results if the people on your “innovation team” are younger or older? I began thinking about this question after reading this interesting post by innovation consultant Gregg Fraley.
Fraley discusses the tempest in the blogosphere that ensued when a hot ad agency named a 55-year-old as its “curator of pop culture.” Outraged commenters blasted the decision, wondering how on earth someone of that age could possibly stay on top of trends or know anything about pop culture.
On the contrary, Fraley contends, being older is actually an advantage in spotting trends: “There are trends, and there is the culture they fit within, and broad knowledge of culture takes years to cultivate.” He goes one step further by saying age is actually an advantage when it comes to being innovative. (Read his arguments here.)
Conventional wisdom holds that enlisting younger people, business novices or people who aren’t familiar with your business or industry is a good way to innovate. People who don’t have a lot of experience in your business, so the argument goes, are more likely to think in unusual ways.
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While there is a lot of truth to this, businesses seeking innovation often go too far with the concept. As business owners, we’re not seeking innovation for innovation’s sake. We’re seeking innovative ideas that have commercial potential—that can be applied in practical ways to create new products, develop new services or enable us to run our businesses better.
It’s great to brainstorm ideas from all sides and even to come up with concepts that may seem completely cuckoo. But to bridge the gap between those out-of-the-box, innovative ideas and the practical reality of putting product in the box, you need people with experience and knowledge of your industry and your business. And those are likely to be older people.
Of course, those experienced, knowledgeable people can nip innovation in the bud if they start getting practical too soon in the process. When encouraging innovation, you have to make sure your experienced people aren’t too entrenched in the past too accept new ideas. You also have to be confident that they aren’t rejecting new ideas in order to protect their turf, power or position.
I appreciate Fraley’s support of experience, but I don’t entirely agree with it. The best way to create an innovative team is not to rely too heavily on youth or experience. Bring in a balance of both. Temper everyone’s ideas with reflection and clearheaded analysis of the business case for making a change. Then, and only then, can you have the best of all possible worlds.