Is innovation a matter of age?

Is innovation a matter of age?Jose Baldaia and I have started an interesting discussion, ignited by a post titled ”Too Young To Know It Can’t Be Done” by Steve Blank. Blank claims that most of the technology innovations were built by people in their 20’s with a few of innovators in their 30’s. His main argument is:

“One of the traps of age is growing to accept the common wisdom of what’s possible and not. Accumulated experience can at times become an obstacle in thinking creatively. Knowing that “it can’t be done” because you can recount each of the failed attempts in the last 20 years to solve the problem can be a boat anchor on insight and imagination. This not only effects individuals, but happens to companies as they age.

In contrast, there is another instructive Newsweek article “The Age of Innovation”, indicating that older workers are more likely to innovate than their under-35 counterparts. This raised the question: Is there a contradiction among both views? Jose Baldaia has greatly outlined his perspective on this in “The tendency to reduce relevance on creativity“. I support Jose’s conclusion that “there is no age to be creative” and would like to add my thoughts here.

To start, let me define some premises I’d like to build upon:

  • Creativity is a combination of knowledge. Creative ideas are built on the existing. Simply put: building a product requires raw material.
  • Creativity is not innovation. Creativity is about coming up with novel ideas. Innovation is about further implementing these ideas. Whether or not ideas turn out to be successful depends on the proof of value in the particular context, e.g. adoption of the market or a scientific breakthrough.
  • Innovativeness has an individual shape. Every person has her own mixture of experience, knowledge and mindset that fuels creation and execution of ideas. I think creativity is no “universal force”.

In an excellent article on teaching creativity, Robert J. Sternberg stresses that knowledge is a double-edged sword:

“On the one hand, people cannot be creative without knowledge. Quite simply, they cannot go beyond the existing state of knowledge if they do not know what that state is. On the other hand, those who have an expert level of knowledge can experience tunnel vision, narrow thinking, and entrenchment. It happens to everyone.“

It’s a kind of trade-off: with increasing age we gain more raw material to connect. But our creativity is also influenced by decreased diversity and stronger psychological biases. I think this is pretty much related to what Steve Blank means by saying: “When you’re young anything seems possible.”

The distinction of creativity and innovation is crucial. Novel ideas are valued by “addressees”, eventually deciding upon success or failure. A high level of creativity doesn’t necessarily imply success. The performance of creative people is a measure for their ability to successfully implement novel ideas in their particular field. In “Fleeting Youth, Fading Creativity”, Jonah Lehrer reports on findings by Dean Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California, dealing with varying peak performances of scientists:

“But Mr. Simonton and others point out that increasing innovation is not simply a matter of funding the youngest researchers. While physics, math and poetry have always been dominated by their most inexperienced practitioners, other disciplines seem to benefit from middle age. Mr. Simonton suggests that people working in fields such as biology, history, novel-writing and philosophy might not peak until their late 40s.”

“What accounts for these variations? Mr. Simonton suggests that they’re caused by intrinsic features of the disciplines. Those fields with a logically consistent set of principles, such as physics and chess, tend to encourage youthful productivity, since it’s relatively easy to acquire the necessary expertise. (The No. 1 ranked chess player in the world today, Magnus Carlsen, is 19 years old.) Because the essential facts can be quickly learned, and it usually doesn’t take that long to write a lyric poem, the precocious student is free to begin innovating at an early age.”

“In contrast, fields that are loosely defined and full of ambiguous concepts, such as biology and history, lead to later peak productive ages. After all, before a researcher can invent a useful new idea, he or she must first learn an intimidating assortment of details.”

According to “The Age of Innovation”, this seems similar for entrepreneurs:

“What’s more, older entrepreneurs have higher success rates when they start companies. That’s because they have accumulated expertise in their technological fields, have deep knowledge of their customers’ needs, and have spent years developing a network of supporters, often including financial backers. “Older entrepreneurs are just able to build companies that are more advanced in their technology and more sophisticated in the way they deal with customers.”

This gives rise to the conclusion that making ideas a success in business requires a certain expertise/experience, network and interpersonal skill, depending on the context and field of activity. All of which tend to increase with higher age.

Finally, I would like to touch creativity as individual capability. David Galenson, a University of Chicago economist, identified two types of creativity. One was based on radical new concepts, at which young innovators excel (think Picasso or Einstein, who were both in their 20s when they revolutionized their fields), and the other built on probing experimentation that coalesces later in life (think Cézanne or Darwin). The second type of innovation is more hesitant and is often a work in progress.

Tim Kastelle wrote a great post, emphasizing that conceptual innovators “start with a clear idea of where they want to go, and then they execute it.” Whereas, experimental innovators consider the execution of novel ideas as a process of searching and improvement. The former have a vision they target at. The latter primarily focus on improving the existing. Individual creativity profiles are likely to be built by superposition of these two basic tendencies. Different circumstances call for different creative styles. Sometimes a revolution, and sometimes a marginal improvement is needed. As already proposed in my previous post, innovation purpose and human capabilities need to fit in order to be successful.


Creativity is of no age. The ability to create novel ideas by combining knowledge stays throughout the entire life. The likelihood of translating creativity into innovation success, though, seems to be a matter of age. The determinants for successfully implementing and exploiting ideas strongly depend on the context, i.e. field of activity, socio-economic environment, cultural conditions etc. Major factors like expertise/knowledge and social capabilities increase with age. Impartiality, in contrast, tends to decrease. Paired with an individually preferred creative style, this combination results in a certain fit of the innovator with the context. Overall, this obviously leads to younger “radicals” and older “experimentators” with regards to statistics. However, people of all ages can be basically capable of being successful innovators.

What do you think?

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Ralph OhrDr. Ralph-Christian Ohr has extensive experience in product/innovation management for international technology-based companies. His particular interest is targeted at the intersection of organizational and human innovation capabilities. You can follow him on Twitter @Ralph_Ohr.

Ralph Ohr

Dr. Ralph-Christian Ohr is an nnovation advisor with extensive experience of various senior management and consulting functions for international companies based in Switzerland. His particular interest is aimed at modern organizational and personal capabilities for high innovation performance. You can visit his Integrative Innovation blog at and follow him on Twitter @ralph_ohr.




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No Comments

  1. J Jeyaseelan on February 11, 2011 at 4:18 am

    I am really glad to read this Newsweek article. It certainly demolishes the popular myth about youth being the fountainhead of innovation. There is no denying the fact that the youth can be fearless. However, this alone is no guarantee for successful innovation. The data quoted in the article does prove this hypothesis beyond any ray of doubt.

    As one who chose to pursue my innovation dream past the age of 50, I can vouch for the key role that age and experience plays in creating break through innovations. I am of the view that countries have miserably failed in tapping the huge innovation potential of the mature minds. Experienced persons can indeed churn in lot better innovations and lot more of successful start ups. This is very visible in the sphere of open source software development. I had also read about a fairly impressive list of people who had accomplished huge success by venturing in to business well past their retirement age. One name that I still remember is the founder of KFC

    It is partly a myopia created by venture capitalists and partly the result of the inertia brought upon by forced retirement. More and more people are forced to plan for their retirement too early in their career. Insecurity in jobs further stunts their innovation.urge Working under strictly rule based corporate environments also dampens their inclination to think outside the box. If we really wish to harness the vast innovation potential of experienced persons lot more fundamental thinking would be required to break down the barriers that they currently face.

    In my personal case, I could not imagine a life without work. I really do not believe there is some thing like retirement age when one should stop working. Look at politicians and business tycoons they always look healthier even at advanced age while those who retire from jobs often are resigned to vegetative lifestyles. This is certainly a colossal waste of human resources. I think all retirement must be made voluntary. That would really give the confidence to venture out to set up startups as they could always fall back on the job market in case of failure

  2. Scott Zuckerman on February 11, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    Great job synthesizing those varying data points on innovation as it relates to age. I think the distinctions between creativity and innovation further the nature of innovation do nice job of laying out the likely pros/cons to age in innovative thinking. I also think that in the end it further reinforces the importance of teams having diversity in thought and experience (including age).

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