Is Experience Good for Innovation?

Is Experience Good for Innovation? - Innovation ExcellenceExperience is what you get just after you needed it.  Or so the saying goes, suggesting that if only you had known beforehand what you learn afterwards, you would have avoided mistakes and achieved a better result.  That’s largely true (in my experience!) but it isn’t a blanket statement that’s applicable in all cases.

A lot of people succeed at innovation because they didn’t have enough experience to realize that they should have failed.  When they started they didn’t have enough knowledge or experience to appreciate all the barriers they had to overcome, so they either ignored them or surpassed them when they were encountered.

I know one small food company that has achieved mightily impressive results simply because of an attitude of belief and a culture of resourcefulness, ironically driven by a lack of experience.  The youthful owner had no prior experience of the food business, so he didn’t know where he might fail.

As we get older, we tend to become more conservative.  Of course, there’s nothing wrong with old age, it’s certainly better than the alternative.  But age can not only bring wisdom, but also a reduction in other characteristics that are positive for innovation.

Generally as people age, they acquire more financial assets.  They are probably in their most senior organizational position.  The sense of achievement in both areas can lead to less hunger and drive.  It can also lead to a fear of loss and trying to secure the future while hanging on to the past.

The net result can be an increasingly conservative approach to risk and, given that innovation is inherently risky, a reluctance to take risks with the more far out options.  As the leadership of most companies tends to be older than the average, for obvious logical reasons, it’s not a surprise that many companies give the impression of a conservative, risk-averse approach to innovation.

This is not an inevitable trend.  I’ve worked with people at the end of their careers who are driven risk-takers with a huge appetite for repeated success, as well as young people who are often scared.  I’ve also worked with people who didn’t want any risk to disturb their time in the metaphorical rocking chair out on the porch.

There are times when experience is unambiguously preferred.  It’s difficult to imagine car companies using novice drivers on the first road test of a new prototype.  I wouldn’t want a first year medical student to perform a new surgical treatment.  Experience of innovation where there are implications for consumer and patient safety is definitely preferred.  The young food business owner I mentioned above didn’t invent new quality and safety systems; he still had to obey the regulations.

It also doesn’t make sense to reinvent the innovation and portfolio management system when experienced people can do this much better.  The need to make them efficient and agile may remain, so challenge from the less experienced creative brains and the occasional external eyes are essential.

Returning to one of my favourite concepts, the 3 Horizons, it makes great sense to apply deep experience to innovation opportunities in Horizon 1, where there is a lot of information about the market, consumers and technologies.  Moving further out to Horizons 2 and 3, there’s a potential danger in applying the experience of Horizon 1.  There’s no guarantee that history will repeat itself.  This is where new ideas and approaches and yes, a little naiveté can be a big advantage.

So it’s essential that the great assets of wisdom and experience be coupled with the right “go for it” attitude.  It’s also important to have a diversity of thinking to get the right balance.  For example, companies can

  • Give time, space and resource to young, talented intrapreneurs.
  • Ensure experienced leaders know they must still deliver the goods today but have a responsibility to keep an innovative spirit alive for the next generation.
  • Use mentoring and coaching systems to pair impatient youth with wise experience, so that the intrapreneurs are guided not directed; and the older ones can retain their youthful drive.
  • Don’t apply the same thinking, rules and systems to Horizons 2 and 3 as you would to Horizon 1.
  • Ensure the right approach to risk – if you feel comfortable with the level of risk you’re taking, you’re probably not taking enough.

Above all, be tolerant when people make new mistakes, ones that haven’t been encountered before; you can always put it down to experience.

image credit: templars.co.uk


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Kevin McFarthingKevin McFarthing runs the Innovation Fixer consultancy, helping companies to improve the output and efficiency of their innovation, and to implement Open Innovation. He spent 17 years with Reckitt Benckiser in innovation leadership positions, and also has experience in life sciences.

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