About a year ago my organization embarked on journey to modernize. Recognizing that many of the best ideas for organizational improvement probably resided in the workforce not the board room, we began soliciting ideas from throughout the firm.

During a town hall meeting I appealed to newer employees who may have ideas from other organizations they have worked in, to younger employees who may have ideas based on exposure to new technology or ideas from school, and to our more experienced employees who have observed the organization over the years and probably have some insightful observations that could help us modernize. The seasoned employees also understand the bureaucratic systems and processes better than anyone and can help us avoid pitfalls as we move forward.

I got some criticism for that approach.

While I thought I was appealing to everyone to be innovative about how we do business, what some employees heard was, “the young employees are innovative and have great ideas and the older ones only know the old ways of doing things.” I have been vocally critical of many of the “old ways” as the outdated processes derived in the 1900s might need an overhaul. Unfortunately some employees interpreted my criticism of 20th Century policies as criticism of our 20th Century employees.

I can understand why some people might think that.

It’s so common to have become cliché: when leaders are looking for change agents in their workforce they often look towards younger employees, hoping a bevy of good ideas will emerge from among the most tech-savvy amongst them. Confusing a willingness to learn and employ new technology with true innovation, many senior leaders believe that the best ideas must come from the portion of the firm’s population most willing to try the latest gadget or app.

And they would be wrong.

Innovation has little to do with an ability to employ emerging technology. Digital natives (people who have grown up in the digital age) typically have a cultural propensity to adopt new technologies as they emerge. After all, new technologies have emerged regularly throughout their lives, and adopting new ones is quite natural. Digital immigrants (those of us that are acquiring skills in digital systems as adults), on the other hand, culturally have different ideas about adopting new tech.

But adopting new tech isn’t really innovation, is it? While there are dozens of different definitions for innovation, the one I like to use is this:  Innovation is combining two or more things in a new way to bring about value.

Using a new app isn’t innovative. It can be useful, but it isn’t necessarily innovative. The inverse may be a truism: the unwillingness to try a new technology will likely impede innovation. But that isn’t because of the technology: it’s about the unwillingness to try.

So innovation isn’t about age, it’s about culture. It’s about a willingness to try to implement new ideas. It’s about experimenting with new ways of doing things. It’s about being thoughtful about the world around you, and imagining how things might be better. It’s about a willingness to see more opportunities than obstacles. Most importantly, it’s about being willing to fail.

Fail? Why would I have to be willing to fail? Because when you try to bring about something new that has value there is a chance that it won’t work. If you’re not willing to take that risk, nothing new will ever emerge. Innovation is about imagining new things and having the willingness to risk failure to give them a chance to succeed.

Don’t misunderstand this tenet as a license to drive the organization off the road. Failing while innovating requires taking prudent steps to mitigate risks, and learning to fail early enough in an effort to learn from it. 

The hard part about practicing innovation in government or large organizations is that bureaucracies tend to be exceptionally risk averse. Having been burned before, these organizations don’t want to risk failures or public criticism or lawsuits by deviating from “the process.” The longer someone has been in the organization the more likely it is that they have been told to “shut up and color inside the lines” by a leader who isn’t willing to take the risk of failing.

Too often our more experienced employees have enough scar tissue from early attempts at innovation that they have simply quit trying. Process-centric bureaucracies don’t often reward non-compliance and creativity. Quite the opposite, they tend to stamp them out. I once had a boss actually tell me to “quit thinking and start doing.” He wasn’t my favorite boss. 

Interestingly, studies have shown that the average age of a majority of successful innovators is somewhere in the mid-40s or later.  See RPRN Mag, or Newsweek, or Government Executive. Research indicates that it is often the nexus of experience and the willingness to fail that brings about the best innovations in any organization. That is, of course, if their organization lets them.

If we want to modernize, we need to change our culture. Our challenge as leaders is to overcome the existing risk-averse culture, and try to instill a culture of innovation. This means seeking out change leaders and innovators throughout your organization and empowering them to make things better. It means reinforcing innovative successes and underwriting honest failures. It means identifying and exploiting talent in every part of your organization regardless of demographics, including age, rank, or longevity with the firm. 

Since we embarked on our modernization effort we have received literally hundreds of great ideas from across the organization. Unsurprisingly many of the best ideas have come from our most experienced workers. Moreover, the experienced workforce knows how these great ideas might actually work in our risk-averse organization and are taking the initiative to make things happen. I couldn’t be more impressed by the way many people have begun embracing new ideas.

It doesn’t seem to matter how young or old our innovators are, or where they are in the organization’s hierarchy. What seems to matter is how willing they are to imagine a better way to do things and a willingness implement change.

Leaders need to back these innovators, and give them a voice when the process-driven culture lashes back at them. 

By the way, Steve Jobs was well over 50 when Apple introduced the IPhone. Just saying.

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