The 30 percent rule: innovation calls for 20-somethings

Always make sure that 30 percent of the people involved in any strategic decision are under the age of 30.

This might be among the smartest things I heard all week.

It’s no surprise that when I share the thought with people who are under 30 I get a huge smile and a “fuck yeah,” in return. And when I mention it to people over 30 I sometimes get a bug eyed look of fear that seems to ask, “Are you being serious?”

I came across the idea doing research on collaborative methods and techniques. It was put forth originally by Vijay Govindarajan in his highly acclaimed Ten Rules for Strategic Innovators: From Idea to Execution. A faculty member at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Management, V. G. (as he’s known among peers) has written frequently on innovation.

The premise is simple: people who have been in any company or business for a long time are good at preserving the status quo, or at best improving performance and execution in what V.G. calls Box 1, managing the present. They inherently understand today’s clients, technologies and competitors and how to leverage current competencies. And, of course, they have a tendency to replicate the processes that led to past successes.

But V.G. argues that innovation – across products, services, models and processes – happens in what he’s labeled Box 2 and Box 3.  Box two is all about selectively forgetting the past — neglecting the tendency to continually respond to competitors and trends that may not be relevant over the long term.  Box 3 is where companies and agencies create the future, inventing new products and new services for clients they don’t yet have. Govindarajan believes that only a younger generation will more naturally be able to see that future.

So why is this important? Why scribble about it here on a blog that covers digital and social media? Because as our business becomes more and more about solving problems rather than making messages, innovation is essential to both our clients and our own companies.  In fact when was the last time you got an RFP, assignment or challenge that could be solved by developing an ad campaign?  More often than not building a client’s business and hence your own calls for the use of new technology, the development of new platforms and apps, or a different look at a brand’s overall UX.

Most of the advertising industry – agencies, digital agencies, social media shops, media firms – are filled with people under 30.  But I’m willing to bet if you look at the room of people who actually make the strategic decisions – businesses to pitch, people to hire, platforms to develop, campaigns to recommend – it’s dominated by people in their 40s and perhaps older.

Maybe it’s time to change that.  I’m putting more people under 30 in the room from now on.  You?

28 comments
cloverdew
cloverdew

I think this is a great idea, but isn't the whole idea really more about diversity in general, rather than a specific age set? Why not involve people who have no experience in the field and people who are experts, people with both left- and right-brain skills, female and male, people of different economic status, people who are concerned about internal vs. external? I think all of those are valid.

gutfeeling
gutfeeling

Might the truth actually be involving people who've no prior experience with that industry or problem?

How many have not gotten a job at Kraft because they hadn't spent the prior 10 years marketing Mac n Cheese?

I don't think it's age as much as people who aren't steeped in the industry who can see the forest versus those who know the trees all too well.

ColbyWG
ColbyWG

My résumé is on the way.

michelletripp
michelletripp

Wow. Finally something I can disagree with you on, Edward! I don't see this as a "we don't have enough young blood in the room" problem, but a "we can't let our people with the most experience and perspective lose their ability to imagine" problem. Because experience + perspective + innovation is an awesomely dangerous thing!

That aside, I'd like to address the age issue... When a younger age group is categorically overvalued, an older age group is being automatically undervalued. You can't say 20-somethings are better innovators without implying that 40-somethings are worse innovators.

If we act on the belief that 20-somethings will be better at strategy, creative, and innovation than older employees, we're breeding an ecosystem that devalues a human as they age. Where older workers are "guilty of not being as innovative" until proven innocent, and 20-somethings are assumed to be innovative until proven otherwise. It keeps us bound by stereotypes... and worse, it perpetuates disposability. (Rather than recycling!) Is this really what we want to perpetuate?

But let's say the study was accurate and younger brains are uncluttered with the experience that breeds status quo thinking and narrow thought. If that's true, it almost seems like overvaluing younger employees is taking the easy way out. It's much more challenging to find "innovative" ways to continue inspiring an employee as they gain experience (and grow older) than it is to scoop up new blood as it comes in, only to discount it in a few years. If innovation is so important, as an agency we should be using it for ourselves!

Thanks for opening this discussion, Edward! It's an important topic and A LOT is riding on whether ageism is embraced or rejected as our society goes forward.

chrisyeh
chrisyeh

Youth has always been part of the equation for Silicon Valley. When you think back about the great companies (Google, Apple, etc.,) almost all were started by founders in their 20s (and note that both Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg were 19 when they dropped out of Harvard to found Microsoft and Facebook).

This isn't to say that we should chuck experience out the window--all of the same examples benefited from experienced leaders like Bill Campbell, Sheryl Sandberg, etc. And Apple achieved its greatest heights when an older and wiser Steve Jobs returned from exile.

If you want to try something different, 20somethings are far more likely to give you what you're looking for.

jenajean
jenajean

Agree with Ed @jezmo - investing in and learning from innovative young professionals has always made good business sense from a strategic standpoint. From a tactical perspective, guess it depends on the product and target market.

jezmo
jezmo

Ed

This sounds suspiciously like affirmative action for youngsters! Joking aside I agree with you. But the input of under 30's needs to be treated just the same as that of the rest of the team. Great ideas are praised and developed, poor ones are (positively) deconstructed and rejected. The point of engaging younger team members in strategic development is 80% learning for them, 20% the possibility they come up with good, actionable ideas. And of course, the more they're involved the more confident they become - and the possibility of a lightening strike increases exponentially. In other words, invest in youth....but really, that's always been a good mantra.

margaretweigel
margaretweigel

Re: the 30% rule. Being an advertising fellow, you understand the cognitive appeal of neat numbers and percentages. So if 30% of team members are under 30 (look how neatly that all works out!), should 40% be under 40, 50% under fifty, etc.? Can we dispense with these faux numbers, even though they're sexy? Given the nature of collective intelligence (see this week's Boston Globe), a balanced team is almost always the way to go.

I wholeheartedly agree w/Sherrett -- innovation is not defined by one's age, but by one's ability to take risks, think outside of the box (and not use hackneyed phrases like "think outside of the box)... that being said, younger workers are blissfully unencumbered by real world experiences, and their range of creative thought can be quite broad.Of course, innovation in an experiential vacuum is fine but not always useful in the nearer-term. In the digital age, one of the most useful talents one can cultivate is discrimination, or the ability to weed out the wheat from the chaff. This is a skill that older workers have in spades.

Sherrett
Sherrett

Edward, I think you're mistaking correlation with causation here.

The key attribute you seek for innovation is new, relevant, imaginative perspectives and the ability to communicate them. This isn't based on age but on context -- on people lucky enough to be unburdened with the curse of knowledge.

And I'd add that, like ideas, in order to have good innovations you have to have lots of innovations, then filter out the unsuccessful ones. That's been my experience participating in strategy and innovation both pre-30 and post-30.

kjbrown22
kjbrown22

And if there are too many twenty-somethings (TMTS -- it's an empidemic!)? What then? Build a bomb shelter and stock up on canned peaches and slim jims?

benessen
benessen

Like your thinking. Reminds me of Roger Martin's excellent The Design of Business (http://www.amazon.com/Design-Business-Thinking-Competitive-Advantage/dp/1422177807) - which (very basically) argues that the more a business matures, the more blinkered they become to innovation in their category. If a mature company have successfully solved a problem one way, they begin to assume that is the only way to solve it. Which leaves them wide open to start-ups who approach the problem a wholly new way.

Sub-30 year old upstarts are like competitor start-ups. Give them both the same respect!

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

Edward this is a great post. I agree with you 100%. I want to expand on this with a unique angle.

I remember coming fresh out of college 'knowing better' than my first managers in my first job. Well yes and no. They taught me a lot. Some things are timeless. But they failed to embrace what I brought to the table as well as my coworkers all under 30 (it was a brutal entry sales position for a division of Bell South in 1993). The result was we each learned the timeless stuff aka how to teleprospect, how to manage time, how to cold call, how to close a sale. But we never felt part of the 'future' because they never asked for out input as things changed over 2 years. So at about the 2 year mark of employment each person left!

The next place I worked for 7 years. They had a different culture. And were very good at having the under 30's participate on team efforts when working on plans for the future of how the business operated. That is why I stayed 7 years that included 2 promotions.

Employees should reside on the asset part of your balance sheet. If you want to invest in them and keep them, they have to be part of forming the future of the business. And they have to have real participation not lip service. And if you want the younger generation who you hope to pass the reins to down the road to stick it out until then....they must be part of that evolution and business building vs just along for the ride. Or they will jump ship the minute something more interesting or challenging comes along.

margaretweigel
margaretweigel

@chrisyeh @michelletripp As Ed suggests, what's needed are 'unpolluted' brains. Polluted brains come in many shapes, sizes -- and yes, ages.

I'm sure what revolutionary work you're referring to, Chris, but I can think of many reasons of youth dominence in innovation besides ability.

chrisyeh
chrisyeh

@margaretweigel @michelletripp Age is only one factor, and far from the largest one in determining whether someone can be innovative. But it is not a coincidence that most revolutionary work is done by the young. I'm not terribly happy about it either--I'm also on the wrong side of the divide. But I can't pretend that I'm as plugged into youth culture as my younger peers.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@michelletripp Well, it took you long enough to disagree with me. Glad you've finally got there. Anyway, lots of good points in this conversation. And I'm not suggesting that we throw out all the over 40-s, heck I'm 15 years older than that. But as I watch our own industry and my own company it becomes evident that you need the un polluted brains in the room. Not to take over, but to play a key role AND be part of the strategic direction for the company and industry. How many times have you seen the same group of people come at the problem the same way? And how many times have you seen a group of people dismiss or overrule the novel thinking of the one outsider. But if 30 percent of the people are younger, different, more diverse with no baggage from the past then "world watch out," as my mentor Jim Mullen used to say.

michelletripp
michelletripp

@chrisyeh That's where I have to differ. I WOULD count on a 45 year-old to generate ideas on how young people might interact. Having that kind of insight is a mix of talent, cultural immersion, and plain old clairsentience. I'm not going to take that away from them just because they're not a "trendy" age. People don't go brain dead after 40. On the other side, there are 25 year-olds who might surprise the hell out of you on how wise they can be. Categorizing a 45 year-old as someone not able to understand how to motivate young people, or a 25 year-old as someone who automatically doesn't have strategic wisdom... that's pure ageism.

My point is that every human is different and many, many continue to be brilliant and innovative as they age. Judging a person's ability based on their age is a dangerous (and inhumane) road to take. It's harmful, disrespectful, and encourages discrimination. Not to mention narrow-minded and myopic. Or maybe I've just met a lot of amazing 60 year-olds and 20 year-olds.

We should be seeking and celebrating brilliance, innovation, and talent. Not the age group from where it comes.

margaretweigel
margaretweigel

@chrisyeh @michelletripp
I was going to write a much longer response, but thankfully I stopped myself. This so-called 'kernel of truth" is ageism, plain and simple. Twentysomethings may be steeped in a cultural position; what matters is what they can do with it. The first can be taught; the second is talent.

If strategy is informed by something bigger than the individual -- cultural memes, popular culture, etc., -- then strategy can be crafted by anyone with that knowledge. Who will be more strategic in this context -- the twentysomething raised on an Amish farm, or the fortysomething who plays video games, watches webisodes and gets the Old Spice guy?

chrisyeh
chrisyeh

@michelletripp Ageism is bad, but it contains a kernel of truth. The young and old are different. Not necessarily better or worse, but different.

Just as I wouldn't count on a 45-year-old to generate new ideas about how young people might interact, I wouldn't count on a 25-year-old to understand the nuances of when to pitch that idea to the client and when to let it bake a bit further.

The answer is not to ignore the age factor, it's to embrace it and let each group leverage its respective strengths.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@chrisyeh Your last sentence says it all. Which is my point. If you want something other than the same old same old, get some people who don't even know that the same old same old is.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@jezmo Yes it does, but that also means acknowledging their great ideas when they have them, as opposed to shunting them aside.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@margaretweigel As long as discrimination isn't prejudice and as long as the criteria are the right ones. As for the numbers, not sure. I suppose we can make all kinds of benchmarks. Real thing is that boomers and even Gen Xers tend to play the "now that I'm in we should close the doors" game. Can be a problem. Also, have cases where seniority, and thus decision makers, are all the same age and mindset. And yes, the piece on collective IQ was quite good. Am using it for additional inspiration. Thanks Margaret for your thoughts.

Sherrett
Sherrett

@edwardboches An interesting experiment would be to assemble a diverse group of people across age groups and to reverse their power roles -- make the junior ones the senior people in the discussion and vice versa.

This is interesting to me because it blends the fresh perspectives and the engrained cultural knowledge and prizes the fresh perspective in decision making and idea validation.

It might also provide the context for participants to acknowledge their role biases -- leaders are supposed to make decisions, reports are supposed to support their leaders.

After all, the whole corporate model is built from the military where the prized dynamic is not innovation but command and control. To break that dynamic, try reversing the roles.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@Sherrett I guess that V.G. is simply suggesting that you would get more of that unburdened perspective from people who had less of it. There are also studies that show that homogeneity is also a real problem for innovation. So in some ways, a difference in age group as part of the mix should be helpful, too. Some additional dialog, not exactly the same, but related. http://search.twitter.com/search?q=edwardboches+%23collaboration

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@benessen My next project is to seed start-ups within the company. That way they make their own decisions, strategic and otherwise. And if there is innovation to come out of it, we can import it back into the Mother Ship.

margaretweigel
margaretweigel

@HowieG What you're describing here -- the change-oriented organization and its not-so-much counterpart -- are essentially two different management strategies. The first, where younger workers are siloed in limited roles and expected to age out, might be thinking both of fresh blood and of the bottom line in that younger workers are cheaper to support. Congratulations to you in finding the second organization, who thinks of the bottom line more broadly in that younger workers are more effort to train, and that frequent talent turnover is expensive and detrimental to the overall well-being of the enterprise.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@HowieG Howie: Agree. There is inclusion and participation and then actual decision making. It's become apparent to me (no doubt once part of the problem I would imagine) that getting out of the way and pushing decisions down is good, especially if y ou want to create something entirely new rather than perfect what you've already been doing. Plus, today young people can start their own thing with a cell phone and an Internet connection. So why not leverage that drive and determination.

Trackbacks

  1. […] I wrote about this a week or so ago. The post garnered more negative comments than positive. But I wasn’t suggesting that 20-somethings are smarter or that we should shuffle off the 40 year olds. Just agreeing with Vijay Govindarajan and his highly acclaimed Ten Rules for Strategic Innovators: From Idea to Execution. I still stand by this recommendation. […]