How Age Affects Innovation Management

In many workplaces, there are at least three age groups of workers to consider.

The first of these are the Traditionalists, those who were born prior to 1965. This group is likely, by this time, to be extremely senior and influential in their organization.

They’re called the Traditionalists, though, because they’re the ones who embody the sets of values one is most likely to see amongst the “old school”. They will, for example, prefer to communicate through rigid and structured hierarchies, and will certainly be command-and-control oriented in the way they distribute and accept tasks amongst themselves.

As innovators, this group will normally prefer to solve problems they’ve been directed to examine, and will usually come up with solutions along trajectories which are well established by their organizations. This, naturally, makes them ideally suited to innovation teams which have elected to follow a Play-Not-2-Lose strategy, and whose primary focus is on incremental innovation.

The second group in organizations is known as “X”, and is usually considered to include all individuals who were born between 1965 and 1983.

X-ers will work in a command-and-control environment, but they’d much rather work more flexibly. Believing that individuals are powerful forces for change in their own right, they think therefore they should be given significant liberty in the kinds of problems and challenges they’ll solve.

When faced with innovation challenges, X-ers will typically look at other industries who have faced similar situations. Their goal will be to find solutions which have worked elsewhere and which can be applied in their own contexts.

The defining factor in self-perception of an X-er is what they know and where they learned what they know. They use their broadness of experience to drive status in their organizations, in contrast to the Traditionalist group, for whom status is a consequence of tenure.

In most workplaces, the last generation to consider are the “Y-ers”. Generation-Y is normally thought to consist of anyone born after 1984, and has a very different approach to work than either of the two generations that preceded it.

This is a generation which has grown up with digital tools and online collaboration, and they are indispensable to any task undertaken by this group. There is very little about hierarchy or command-and-control in the ideal Y-er organization.

Theirs is the great gift of teaming naturally, and leadership roles switch automatically between them depending on the task at hand. Moreover, their digital connections give them very broad reach to global thinking and insight, and they will often know much more about the workings of the world outside their organizations than either of the two previous generations.

The broad grasp of the way the world works makes Gen-Y a very powerful force when what’s needed is a radical solution to a particular innovation problem. The broadness of understanding leads to out-of-the-box ideas, and the lack of command-and-control means it is extremely probable that Gen-Y will see opportunities X-ers will write off as “too risky” and Traditionalists as “Impossible”.

On the other hand, Y-ers will usually not be particularly interested in incremental innovation, and when they are forced to do it, will often dream up radical approaches when the tried and true way is better. They can work in either Play-2-Win or Play-Not-2-Lose environments, but, obviously prefer the former to the latter.