In his classic 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn argued that the people who achieve “fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have either been very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change.”(1).
In other words, when it comes to innovation, organisations can be disabled by experience and specialisation.
Both Einstein and Picasso were at their most original in their early years – the young Einstein invented the special theory of relativity in 1905 when he was just 26 years old. In 1907 a 26 year old Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and effectively invented cubism (2).
Of course the idea of youth was itself new in the early 1900s and it wasn’t until the 1950s that someone ‘invented’ teenagers. But some companies still haven’t quite caught up with the idea that it’s young people (a company’s staff and customers) that are the most likely to invent the future.
There are plenty of reasons why the most innovative people in any organisation are the newest recruits. Young people tend to have the most energy and the most confidence. They’re also ‘outsiders’ and have little respect for tradition or orthodoxy. Their lack of experience can also be an asset because they’re not restrained by history or preconceptions. Older employees, on the other hand, know that it has all been tried (and failed) before.
This lack of experience was something that Seymour Cray (an early designer of high-speed computers) seized upon. Cray had a policy of hiring young fresh faced engineers because they didn’t yet know what couldn’t be done (3). A company called Fresh Minds (www.freshminds.co.uk) works on a similar principle. They supply freshly minted graduates to some of the world’s top companies.
Another issue is that the longer you work for an organisation, the more you adopt groupthink and the further removed you become from real life (how customers think, feel and behave). I once worked with one of the largest automotive companies in the world who wanted to understand how people really bought cars. In one meeting we innocently asked a group of 35 senior executives when they had last bought a car on their own with their own money. Not a single person could remember. In contrast, the younger employees who were not given cars had a real grasp of reality as a result.
Another car company, Toyota, once put together a ‘board’ of children to advise them on product development. Hasbro has done the same with toys and Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre once asked some school kids to attend a series brainstorming sessions on the future of technology. Indeed, as Grouch Marx said, “a six year old child could understand this – quick, get me a six year old child”.
Just after the American Civil War a doctor called George Beard got interested in whether there was a connection between age and creative ability. He found that there was and that creativity peaks around the age of forty. Moreover, he estimated that 70% of global creative output came from people under the age of forty-five.
A few years later another study by Harvey Lehman observed that, whilst the finding was true, the relationship between creativity and age varied according to discipline (4).
Conversely, it’s also some of the oldest employees (and especially those that are closest to retirement) that have the best ideas because they have little or no responsibility for the outcomes. They’re not restrained by the practicalities of implementation and they no longer care what anyone else in the organisation thinks about them. Mix these people up with some young minds and the results can be explosive.
So what are the practical lessons here for innovation teams?
1.Involve some of the newest recruits. If you don’t know any find some.
2.Think like a kid yourself sometimes – keep asking why?
3.Hire curious people and don’t always get hung up on experience.
4.Plug into the brains of older employees (even those that have retired).
5.Mix innocence with expertise (new ideas often favour youth, whilst development and execution often suit experience).
Finally, ensure that teams are multi-disciplinary. This doesn’t just mean getting someone from marketing and someone from R&D. Involve customer service, customer complaints, sales, finance and production. And whatever you do, try not to put together a group where everyone is the same age, the same sex and went to the same school. Because, guess what? they’ll probably all have the same idea.
References and further reading
(1) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S.Kuhn.
(2) Einstein Picasso by Arthur I.Miller,
(3) Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis.
(4) Corporate Creativity by Alan G. Robinson & Sam Stern,