Age Diversity and Innovation Teams

by Pete Foley

Diversity is good for innovation. Integrating different backgrounds, fields of expertise, depths and breadths of knowledge and experience all help to create new interfaces where innovative ideas can spark and thrive. Likewise, diverse thinking styles and personality types help foster balance between ideation, creativity, execution and delivery.

There are lot’s of ways to increase diversity, but should this include age?

Are we better of with younger, passionate teams that challenge the status quo, or more mature teams that leverage broader experience and expertise? Or are these both stereotypes, and age doesn’t really matter.

Homogeneity in innovation teams… is generally a bad idea

In the case of age, teams dominated by experience can find it harder to challenge givens and norms. They are also susceptible to confirmation and functional fixedness biases fueled by common experience. As a result they may move teams too quickly from ideation into execution and delivery. However, teams lacking experience may have a counter propensity to repeat historical failures – Not just reinventing the wheel, which even when it is not novel, can still be useful, but also reinventing concepts that are neither useful or novel, analogous to New Coke, Newton PA’s and DeLorean’s. These are concepts that are obviously bad in hindsight, but less so in real time.

Age and Scientific Creativity

A common assumption is that innovation is a young person’s game. Indeed, Max Planck said “Science advances one death at a time” and Einstein once commented that “a person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of thirty will never do so”. Indeed, many discoveries that led to Nobel prizes in Physics and Quantum mechanics were made by scientists while in their 20’s or 30’s. But this is no longer the case, and the mean age of Nobel Prize winning achievements since 1980 is a little under 50 years old. I believe this reflects that as fields mature, it takes longer to accrue the critical mass of knowledge necessary for even the most brilliant to make breakthrough advances.

It’s Been a Long Time Since… I Rock and Rolled

It’s not just science where innovation can appear to be dominated by youth. For the past two years we have sadly seen far too many Rock and Rollers pass on, from my personal hero David Bowie, to Prince, Tom Petty, George Michael, Chris Cornel, Greg Allman, and However, as painful as their loss was, most of them appeared to have long since passed their creative and commercial peaks. They are not alone, the Beatles, Stones, Bowie, The Who, Elton John, Led Zeppelin all produced their masterpieces in their twenties or thirties. With all due respect, few people go to see Paul McCartney or The Who these days primarily to hear their new songs.

There are always exceptions, such as Bowies heart wrenching Blackstar, or Lou Reed’s beautifully crafted Love and Death, but in general, rock and roll innovation belonged, and still belongs to the young. But Rock and Roll is also a ‘young’ art form.

If we look more broadly at the arts, correlation between youth and creativity is less clear. Michaelangelo may have completed David in his late 20’s, but was also actively creating masterpieces until his death at a very respectable age of 88. Mozart composed his ninth symphony at the astonishing age of 16, but his Jupiter symphony, often considered his most innovative, was completed just a couple of years before his untimely death at age 35, at least suggesting he may not have peaked creatively. While life spans were often shorter as we look back in history, Picasso, Dali, Da Vinci were all highly creative throughout their careers.

The Myth of 10,000 Hours

Another concept that supports some correlation between maturity and peak innovation is the idea that 10,000 hours forms an essential foundation for innovation, and 10,000 hours takes time to accrue. This is not a bad concept as a general principle, but is also a vast oversimplification. In reality, the critical mass, and hence total hours of experience needed to innovate is going to vary enormously between different disciplines, and also between individuals. In some cases, 10,000 hours can even get in the way, as it can require unlearning. As a personal example, I came of age as a musician along with Punk Rock.

Unfortunately, I started learning how to play guitar at a young age, and so had close to 10,000 hours when punk rock exploded onto the music scene. At that moment in time my experience was often a distinct disadvantage. Audiences demanded raw, primitive guitar and bass parts. Mine instead sounded, and were, contrived, as I was trying to unlearn the complexity I’d already learned, which is extremely difficult.

A Case for Balance

Often a balance of experience and naivety is the ideal. Nobody wants to go under the knife of a raw, creative ‘punk rock’ surgeon, or take off in a plane flown by a ‘punk rock pilot’. However, the ideal for complex surgery is often not the most senior surgeon either, as she will often only operate a couple of times a month. An ideal balance is likely a junior surgeon with the automatic motor skills and habits of someone who operates routinely many times a day, teamed with a senior surgeon, who has accumulated experience of most oddities and exceptions, and who can draw on that deep experience in the face of the unexpected.

It’s a loose analogy, but mixed levels of experience are not a bad goal for an innovation team, bringing together recent real world experience, open minds, deep knowledge and hard earned experience. Mixed ages also bring a diversity of empathy. For example, older people are typically better at understanding some of the physical limitations associated with age, such as poorer eyesight, reduced physical strength and mobility.  But these can also be great proxys for simplification that also works across broader demographics. A package that is easily read by a senior also carries a simpler message that requires less cognitive bandwidth for everyone.

Managing the Cost of Experience

Finally, one argument I’ve heard for teams with a strong bias for youth is that they are cheaper.  So what if they make a few mistakes, it’s still cheaper than employing expensive, proven innovators. There may be cases where this is true, especially in digital domains where experiments are cheap to run, and can be turned around very quickly. But I’d still argue for some experience, especially as a little experience can go a long way, and potentially be spread across multiple teams.  And experience not only helps prevent us from repeating past errors, but also helps in understanding why something does or doesn’t work. Even if we can run infinite A/B tests, unless we underpin results with theory and understanding, we’ll never develop predictive capability, and so be vulnerable to competition who design experiments based on hypothesis, or perhaps don’t always need to experiment at all.

Also, innovation teams should not be solely about delivering results. They are also about developing capability, and this grows best in groups with mixed experience, where mentoring and experience sharing occurs in both directions.

In Summary: age and experience diversity will generally deliver multiple benefits

  1. Help to avoid reinventing the equivalent of the Newton or the Edsel: Have at least one or two members of the team who have enough history and experience to avoid reinventing epic failures.
  2. Avoid the ’seen it all, done it all’ trap, and have enough openness to challenge ‘Givens’ and sacred cows. Just because a concept failed before doesn’t mean it will fail now. Some ideas are ahead of their time, and some are enabled by new technology in ways it is hard for someone who failed before to see.
  3. Grow Capability. Mixed experience teams pass experience and theory onto younger members faster than they can learn simply via trial and error, but also force more experienced team members to sharpen the saw, challenge sacred cows, and add new creative life to their processes.
  4. Provide first hand empathy for age based differences. A young designer can always don rubber gloves and glasses to experience limitations of age. But living with it brings deeper insight. Likewise, just because older demographics may take longer to adopt new technology, it doesn’t mean it won’t work for them.  Younger team members can often show older ones opportunities they may find hard to imagine.

Aiming for age diversity doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider weighting teams for age or other attributes. Using personality types as an example, if we want a team that is going to create a lot of new ideas, then consider overweighting for openness.  If we have tight deadlines, and are in a race to market, maybe overweight in conscientiousness.

Likewise, the demographic targets, technical expertise, or the size of the disruption we need to make for different projects may favor a bias towards different age groups. But a designed in bias like this is different to the kind of unintended homogeneity that can come from pulling together a team of similar seniority based primarily on functional expertise, rather than also considering length of experience, personality type, and T-shaped innovation capability.

Of course, age is only a proxy, and some people achieve a critical mass of experience at a young age. Others remain high energy, challenging and contrarian for all of their lives. An individuals innovation age is somewhat analogous to Dr. Mike Roizen’s Real Age concept as applied to health. Because of differences in diet, exercise, weight, abuse and chronic illness, two people of the same chronological age may differ quite significantly in wellness, likely lifespan, and overall physical health.

Likewise, innovators who are constantly learning new things, exploring and publishing in new areas, and collaborating with other individuals in a wide variety of fields may just maintain a younger innovator age. But overall, it’s at least worth considering deliberately mixing ages in a team, especially in organizations where it is common for everyone at a similar hierarchical level to be of somewhat similar age.

 

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A twenty-five year Procter & Gamble veteran, Pete Foley has spent the last 8+ years applying insights from psychology and behavioral science to innovation, product design, and brand communication. He spent 17 years as a serial innovator, creating novel products, perfume delivery systems, cleaning technologies, devices and many other consumer-centric innovations, resulting in well over 100 granted or published patents. Follow him @foley_pete

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