Myth of Age + Experience in Innovation Equation

2014-04-08-safe_image.php.jpegFor years, a widely accepted "truism" of many businesses and organizations has been that effective leadership has to come from within the ranks of those who have paid their dues for decades within a company. In hiring from within, based on employees' seniority and past success, a company definitely reaps the advantage of institutional memory in facing the future. Is this enough in today's competitive marketplace, however? Is corporate America excluding the best shot for innovative solutions by reserving spots in brainstorming and strategy sessions for only the most senior (and oldest) members of the team?

History indicates that General Motors' bankruptcy in the first decade of the 21st century may indeed be inversely related to the success of Apple, Google, and Facebook. This intersection may be where "old school" autocratic, hierarchical-style management philosophy crashed and a new world order took over on the business stage. All three companies rose like Phoenixes, not necessarily out of the ashes, but in a startling manner that disrupted complacent, conventional thinking in the space around them.

For companies still trudging along the same old path, with expectations of extraordinary results, the bankruptcy of General Motors can be viewed as a warning. I recently became aware of a second-hand account of successful and entrepreneurial businessman Ross Perot's question to the GM Board after having becoming a director. "What do we make on our vehicles that's best in the world?" He was shocked when his fellow directors were unable to point to a single feature on any of the vehicles. Perot's purported response was, "Well, we need to be the best at making something--even if it's a glove compartment."

Could GM's bankruptcy have been forecast? Perhaps, if business leaders had taken a careful look at innovative breakthroughs over the past four hundred years. Counter-intuitive though it may be, many of the greatest scientists and innovators experienced their most original and creative breakthroughs in early adulthood--while in their twenties--rather than toward the end of their lives, when traditional expectations equated success with age and wisdom. These early breakthroughs were true for Isaac Newton, Werner Heisenberg and Albert Einstein, and more recently for Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Sergey Brin. (The jury remains out on the famous, successful twenty-something founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg.)

Relying on age and experience has been the way of the business world since the beginnings of the industrial era in the 18th century. It's clear to me that in the present and future Information Age, however, older isn't necessarily better when it comes to brands and services. Apple became one of the world's most valuable brands by innovating better products and paying attention to the user's experience. Interestingly, in the Sunday Review section of the February 16, 2014, issue of The New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman wrote a column entitled "Start-Up America: Our Best Hope." In this provocative piece, Friedman compares and contrasts the thinking of Silicon Valley and that of Washington, D.C. He writes, "The most striking thing about visiting Silicon Valley these days is how many creative ideas you can hear in just 48 hours," and then proceeds to cite specific ideas he uncovered. LinkedIn's chief executive Jeff Weiner, for example, talks about how his company is working to come up with an economic graph linking the whole global workforce with every job opening in the world, full-time and temporary, the necessary skills for each job, and a presence for every higher education institution offering a means of acquiring those skills.

Any startling ideas like this coming out of Washington, D.C.?

Maybe it's time to dispel the myth of the importance of age and experience in the business world. Institutional memory is still important, but clearly innovative thinking is the result of the new (young) building on the old, especially when it comes to brainstorming and strategy sessions. Wake up, America!