Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Is innovation generational?

I've been thinking a lot about the reasons why innovation seems so important and pervasive, and equally so poorly implemented.  Everywhere I go, executives are talking about the need for more innovation.  Elected officials at the federal and state level praise innovation.  CEOs and senior executives extoll the importance of innovation.  Entrepreneurs talk about innovation as the lifeblood of their businesses.  Yet for all the talk about innovation, there's a huge gap between what gets talked about and what gets done.  Too often, while innovation seems important, executive teams are distracted, multi-tasking, or feel that the competition isn't as compelling as we think it is.
Some of this thinking I believe is generational, shaped by the boomer generation, which controls much of the managerial and executive class in the US today.

Fairly or unfairly, the boomers have come in for some close examination as a cohort.  Clearly not every boomer reflects all of the flaws associated with the boomer generation, but as a whole the boomers are often thought of as acquisitive, self-involved and coming of age when a lot was made available to them and not much was asked of them.  This made me wonder - is innovation generational?  By that I mean are the baby boomers more or less likely to innovate than generations before them, or after them?  Then I thought, why not explore the idea?

For the record, I'm a tweener - born at the very end of the boomer generation and the start of Gen X.   Never really felt at home in either camp.  And this exploration isn't meant to say that boomers are bad, per se, or that Gen X or the Greatest Generation are good, necessarily.  Just to explore the settings in which each generation emerged and what shaped them.


Boomers, you'll assert, are clearly good innovators.  Why, look no further than Steve Jobs.  Jobs was clearly a boomer, and there has been a tremendous amount of innovation over the last 20 years as the boomers took power in corporate America.  Yes, there has been a burst of innovation, but the vast majority of businesses today are headed by boomers, and the focus I find most often is in taking profits, cutting costs and living to fight another day rather than creatively exploring customer needs, developing compelling new products and exploring adjacent spaces.  Jobs is renown perhaps because he is an exception rather than the rule. 

Boomers may be poor innovators because they came of age at a time when the US was pre-eminent, when the economy was on the upswing.  Remember the movie "Wall Street" and "greed is good"?  Our stock market has swung upward dramatically, and at points in the 80s and through the 90s it felt as though the US had no competition.  There's no rationale to innovate when the competition is low and you are on top.  The boomers to the greatest extent have never experienced a truly competitive market, known hardships or had to fight for market share.  From the end of World War 2 to the end of the 90s, the baby boomer generation, at least in the US, has had its own way.  And I think that makes the boomers too self-satisfied, a bit too arrogant.  I remember people from my parents generation being uncomfortable with DINKS (Double Income No Kids) and Yuppies, thinking that these cohorts acquired wealth too easily, that they were too self-important and too self-satisfied.  Those aren't factors for innovation.  Of course not all boomers reflect these values, but as a whole the boomers were given a lot, and in many cases have acted to protect what they have rather than expand the pie.

Greatest Generation

Compare and contrast with the previous generation, the Greatest Generation.  These were the folks who came of age during the Great Depression and World War 2.  They lived in a time when many people weren't certain where their next meal was coming from.  They lived in a time of incredible uncertainty, between the rise of Nazi Germany and the subsequent rise of Communism.  These are the folks who put a man on the moon, who created many of the technologies that we take for granted today.  Their investments and sacrifices built a platform of technologies, systems and communication structures that we still use today.  They built the internet - or at least all of the critical pieces.  They put a man on the moon.  Their innovations power what the boomers did, and more.  They were curious, engaged, and had a great sense of community.  They knew hardship and worked hard to make their lot better.  Many started with little or nothing, then fought in a vicious war, then returned home to go to college, get married, start a career.  Their investments are what fuel much of what we do today.  I think their experiences created a cohort that was willing to struggle, willing to invest and face hardships, knowing that in those hardships and investments the future would be better.  Their attitudes were perhaps a bit conservative but always optimistic about the future.  America had a campy but "can do" spirit from this generation.

Gen X and beyond

Will the innovation and creativity pendulum swing back in the subsequent generations?  Is innovation a generational commodity?  Are generations more or less innovative based on their experiences as a cohort?  Gen X and the generations that follow them in the so-called Baby Bust after the Baby Boom are quite different from the Boomers.  They are less acquisitive, more concerned about each other and society and the environment.  They appear to volunteer more, and to be more socially engaged.  They've turned away somewhat from the overabundance many boomers seem guilty of - have you seen the TV show Storage Wars or Hoarders - and appear to maintain a more sedate pace of life.  Yet they are very interested in solving important problems, and we need them to get engaged in government, in academia and in industry, to revitalize and rethink structures and models.  After almost 50 years (1950 - 2000) the world is very different from what is was, and it remains to be seen if Gen X can be and will be as innovative as I think the Greatest Generation was.  They have the passion and energy that frankly I think is spent from the boomers.

Gen X and subsequent generations face a very different current and future environment. While the US economy is still strong, China is growing quickly and many other emerging economies seek a voice in the global economy.  Competition is fierce and partnerships are changing.  The US economy and the stock market are far more volatile than before, and many markets are saturated.  To make a "dent in the world" Gen X and beyond are going to have to create ideas and solutions that are noticeably different.

So where does that leave us

Currently, many senior executives are boomers.  They were born and raised in a period when the US was pre-eminent, could do what it wanted, had few competitors.   When you are on top, innovation isn't important, but staying on top is.  You reduce risks and keep profits high, to increase stock price and compensation.  Over the last 30 years we've had successive management fads including TQM, BPR, Outsourcing, Six Sigma, Lean, Right Sizing and so forth.  All in the service of profitability and efficiency, not in the service of innovation.  The more efficient companies become, the more risk averse they become, and boomers have never really experienced struggle or risk.

In addition, boomers I think are easily distracted, believing that they can successfully manage many competing priorities, when in fact they are often distracted by the urgent at the cost of the important.  That's not a failing just of the boomer generation, but I sense that boomers are perhaps more susceptible, given their belief in themselves and the fact that they've had a great half-century with less strife.  What will Gen X and subsequent generations look like, given social media, texting and the "always on" lifestyle?  Will that make them more socially aware, better at understanding needs and better communicators, or simply distract them even more?

In the end I do think innovation is generational.  Each generation is shaped by its environment, its experiences.  Those lessons, and the context in which the generation comes of age, the competitive landscape, the ethos of the group, shapes its ability to innovate and the choices the group makes when it has an opportunity to innovate.  I think Gen X and beyond are coming of age at a time when competition is intense, the US is a leader but not so pre-eminent, and there are many more emerging countries with far more capabilities than when their parents came on to the scene.  This heightened competition, and to some extent a rejection of the way boomers lived, may create more and better innovators.  Time will tell.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:22 AM


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