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Innovation : Not too late for us old guys

20130331-114646.jpg “We need some gray hair, a silver haired fox,” that from the one of the owners of design/build company I was representing back in my thirties. He thought I was doing a fine job, he just wanted someone 25 years my elder to lead in the court room. I could choose anyone I wanted and it didn’t matter what it cost.

I haven’t heard that much, if at all, after leaving the practice, and moving to Seattle to found a couple tech based companies. Heck, I wonder if at age 57 all the cool ideas have passed me buy. I also have hard time keeping up with the ‘kids’ in their 20’s and 30’s to implement the ideas I do have.

Not so fast, writes Tom Agan in this morning’s New York Times. Innovators get better with age.

We’re all apt to think young when it comes to innovators.

The most common image of an innovator is that of a kid developing a great idea in a garage, a dorm room or a makeshift office. This is the story of Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Bill Gates of Microsoft, and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple. Last week, Yahoo announced that it had bought a news-reading app developed by Nick D’Aloisio, who is all of 17.

Think again.

The directors of the five top-grossing films of 2012 are all in their 40s or 50s. And two of the biggest-selling authors of fiction for 2012 — Suzanne Collins and E. L. James — are around 50…

…[A]ccording to research by Benjamin Jones of Northwestern University, a 55-year-old and even a 65-year-old have significantly more innovation potential than a 25-year-old.

If an organization wants innovation to flourish, the conversation needs to change from severance packages to retention bonuses. Instead of managing the average age downward, companies should be managing it upward. (emphasis added)

A couple more takeaways from Agan.

  • Though Noble Prize winners may ‘invent’ at an average age of 38 (6 years older than in 1990), they don’t receive their award until they’re in their 60’s. Keep us around if you want notoriety for your organization.
  • It takes a corporate innovator at least 10 years to educate others about the nature, implications and applications of a new idea. A reasonable target retention age for then attaining an average level of innovation would be at least age 50.

I’m feeling better already, Tom. It was about age 40 that I discovered, at least for me, that the Internet was a fabulous medium for networking so as to build my word of mouth reputation as a good trial lawyer.

Having started LexBlog 9 years ago, I’m on schedule in bringing my innovation (empowering lawyers to network through the Internet) to fruition by educating others about the nature, implications and applications of my idea.

How about you? Still have it in you to deliver on an innovative idea? Age is not an impediment. I see plenty of people founding companies or leading innovation in both emerging growth and traditional companies who are in their 50’s and 60’s. God knows the legal profession is looking for innovation.

As Agan told one journalist who felt they were getting pushed aside, “… [Y]ou still have a few more years to hit it out of the ballpark…”

Image courtesy of Flickr by Zabowski.

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