In Act II Scene vii of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the character Jaques de Boys speaks the memorable words “All the world’s a stage.” Jaques, in his monologue, then delves into Shakespeare’s depiction of the “seven ages of man,” from infant through adulthood and back again, the circle of life writ large:
…and all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
Upon hearing a commentator refer recently to the seven ages of man, my mind immediately wandered to innovation and I wondered if there were parallels between Shakespeare’s perspective on the ages of man and the trials and tribulations that we often face as innovation practitioners. It seems the Bard can offer lessons to those of us who work in innovation, just as his works are instructive in so many other fields.
At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
The first age, infancy, reminds me of the void into which many innovations first come into being. In some cases, a new idea that leads to an innovation is simple and, usually, not fully defined. The innovation in its infancy has little ability on its own to move and is dependent on us, the nurses of innovation, to bring it from the void. Nothing is as fragile as a brand-new idea or innovation, yet at the same time very few things have as much potential as a new idea.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.
The second age of life, the school-boy, is marked by the distinction between nursing and nurturing. An innovation reaching the second age requires nurturing, not nursing, because the idea must have the ability to survive on its own. For the first age of an innovation, the idea exists only in one person’s head. The next step involves putting the idea in front of others, for instance on a whiteboard in an ideation session. I can attest that one of the most nerve-wracking times in my innovation work is when I take an idea I have been nursing along and put it on the table in front of a larger group to see if it has any traction. It is at this point that the originator of the idea can no longer nurse the idea alone, but has to interact with other participants to see if they are willing to nurture the idea themselves to further its development.
And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.
The third age of an innovation, like the lover in the third age of man, requires the originator of an idea to focus intensely on the innovation like a lover singing a ballad. Although it can be valuable in this early phase of innovation to focus on the faults of an idea, too much attention paid to faults can derail the innovation process. In some ways the innovator needs to be somewhat blind to the faults of his or her idea while focusing on its strengths in order to develop the idea to its fullest extent. The time will come where the faults need to be examined, but having a true passion for an idea can help maintain the momentum of the development process.
Once an innovation reaches the fourth age, the soldier, the originator can expend energy thinking about and adjusting to flaws in the idea. Just as a soldier would examine his or her defensive situation and nearby threats, the innovator must also take steps to understand the arena in which the innovation must compete in the marketplace. The innovator can make defensive adjustments so the idea is better position to respond to challenges, or can make offensive adjustments to proactively address potential adversaries. For the innovator inside a large organization, these offensive and defensive steps could all involve working through different groups and sponsors to build support for an innovation, particularly for one that drives significant changes to operations.
And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part.
The fifth age of man is the justice. Shakespeare focuses on the wisdom and fairness of this age, and in the case of innovation, this is the age where the originator of an idea must think about those concepts as he or she continues to push the innovation forward. After the battles of the fourth age, an innovation that survives may have done so at the expense of other parts of an organization or other individuals. Wisdom and fairness should guide the innovator as he or she continues to press ahead in spreading the innovation across the organization. In the brutal competition of the marketplace, such concepts may seem antiquated but wisdom does have a role to play in guiding the innovator.
The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound.
The sixth age of man is the elderly individual, and from an innovation standpoint we should think of this stage as the time when a new idea has been implemented and, potentially, has succeeded in transforming an organization or competing in the marketplace. This age is a reminder that the idea will decay over time as organizations continue to evolve and consumer tastes change, so the innovator should start thinking of how to adjust the innovation in light of these developments.
Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Shakespeare’s final age, which comes full circle, reverts to childhood and the innovation must be reborn or fresh ideas must be generated. This serves as a reminder to the innovator that not idea, however, brilliant, can thrive forever and eventually the original idea will need to be nursed again just as it was in infancy.
So what lessons can we take from comparing innovation to Shakespeare’s seven ages of man? Another title for this article could be “Anthropomorphic Innovation,” as one of my key messages is that it can be useful to think about supporting innovation in the way that we would support the development of a human being. I was particularly struck by thinking about the differentiation between nursing and nurturing an idea, and how significant the step is when an innovator takes an idea out of his or her head and watches it become nurtured by a larger group of colleagues. Likewise, the dichotomy between the age of the lover and that of the soldier is a reminder that if we spend too much time focusing on what’s wrong with a new idea in preparation for future battles, we may never get to the battle in the first place.
Some would argue that this winnowing process is more important than the romantic phase of innovation, but I would counter that the benefits of an intense focus on developing an idea can render the innovation strong enough to be able to withstand the inevitable future assaults from the corporate bureaucracy or the marketplace. The time will come for defensive and offensive preparations, but focusing on those aspects too soon can limit the development of an idea. Finally, the circular nature of Shakespeare’s parable of the ages of life reminds us that even the most brilliant and creative innovation will eventually run its course and require an infusion of new thinking, nurturing, or support to continue to thrive.
image credit: chichester & peoplebrand
Scott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.