Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Gray Hair and Innovation

I'm just peaking.

I’m just peaking.

How old are people when they’re at their innovative peak? I worked in the computing industry and we generally agreed that the most innovative contributors were under 30. Indeed, sometimes, they were quite a bit under 30.

Some of this is simply not knowing what can’t be done. I’ve seen this with Elliot. He doesn’t know how a computer is “supposed” to work. So he just tries things … and very often they work. On the other hand, I do know how a computer is supposed to work and I sometimes don’t try things because I “know” they won’t work. Elliot just doesn’t have the same limits on his thinking. That can be a great advantage in a new field.

While youth may be an advantage in software, it’s not true in many other fields. In pharmaceuticals, for instance, the most innovative people are in their 50s or even 60s. It takes that long to master the knowledge of biology, chemistry, and statistics needed to make original contributions. Comparatively speaking, it’s easy to master software.

Indeed, as knowledge gets more complicated, it takes longer to master. According to Benjamin F. Jones of the Kellogg School of Business, “The mean age at great achievement for both Nobel Prize winners and great technological inventors rose by about 6 years over the course of the 20th Century.” The average Nobel prize winner now conducts his or her breakthrough research around the age of 38 – though the prize is typically awarded many years later.

Aside from domain knowledge, why might you want a little gray hair to fuel innovation in your company? According to a recent article by Tom Agan in the New York Times, one reason is the time necessary to commercialize an innovation. As a general rule, the more fundamental an innovation, the longer it takes to commercialize. Ideas need to percolate. People need to be educated. Back-of-the-envelope sketches need to be prototyped. Lab results need to be scaled up. It takes time – perhaps as much as 20 to 30 years.

Who’s best at converting the idea to reality? Typically, it’s the person or persons who created the innovation in the first place. So, let’s say someone makes a breakthrough at the Nobel-average age of 38. You may need to keep them around until age 58 to proselytize, educate, socialize, realize, and monetize the idea. In the meantime, it’s likely that they will also enhance the idea and, just possibly, kick off a new round of innovation.

So, what to do? Once again, diversity pays. Mixing employees of multiple age groups can help stimulate new ways of thinking and better ways of communicating. Ultimately, I like Meredith Fineman’s advice: “Working hard, disruption, and the entrepreneurial spirit knows no age. To judge based upon it would be juvenile.”

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