Why Innovation Programs Should Target Middle-Aged Bureaucrats

Data show that the average age of the most successful innovators is somewhere in the mid-40s.

Imagine the benefits of these things: An earlier test for autism that could improve the ability to treat it. A new procedure to treat atrial fibrillation that holds hope for reducing the risk of strokes. A test for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder that, by focusing on biomarkers could enable more accurate and scaled diagnoses and treatments. These are just a few of the hundreds of innovations that competed in the Merage Institute’s fourth annual innovation competition in Tel Aviv last month, at which I was privileged to be a speaker and judge.

There were specific criteria competitors had to meet to ensure that their innovation would merit the $100,000 prize. But one requirement stood out: Competitors had be over 45 years old.

I, for one, thought that was a brilliant idea, which is one of the reasons I was so delighted to participate. And not just because 45 is for me well in the past. The competition highlighted a growing issue that those of us who believe the government must move aggressively into the digital age need to think about. That is that the demographic divide in government could create serious barriers to major change.

For example, at ACT-IAC’s Executive Leadership Conference last Fall, I participated in a “debate” that was advertised as pitting the “edgy” vs. the “experienced.” Only after some of us raised a concern that the very title implied that those of a certain age could no longer be “edgy” (i.e., innovative) did the organizers change the description to the “edgy” vs. the “edgy plus.” But the implication was clear. Innovation is largely the purview of the young.

I first started thinking about this phenomenon a few years ago after reading “Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem” in the New York Times Magazine by Yiren Liu, a then-28 year old technologist. She described a world in which her friends and peers were demonstrating the genius and vision to create innumerable disruptive new applications, yet were building them on top of technologies that were by and large emanating from large, established technology companies that her peers viewed as “old news” and wouldn’t consider working for. It’s a contemporary version of the old 1960’s adage “never trust anyone over 30.”

By many measures, the perception of innovation being mostly the purview of the young has always been true. Indeed, there is no doubt that the older we get the less we are inclined to change. Nor is there is any doubt that we are witnessing today the rise of a generation of extraordinary creators and innovators who are challenging our preconceived notions and models in new and ever more powerful ways.

However, that it is only part of the story. Data show that the average age of the most successful innovators—those who have transformed an innovative idea into a sustainable and impactful product or solution—is somewhere in the mid-40s. In its 2015 annual report on global technology, a major technology company said that more innovation than ever was being driven by customer demand, especially from large established manufacturing concerns, rather than by what some have termed the “Steve Jobs theory”; that is, customers don’t know what they want until Apple shows them. As just one example, one of my firm’s clients is a later stage start up with a potentially game changing supply chain solution—originally invented by and for a large, global manufacturer before being spun out as an independent company. In other words, in the commercial sector, there are signs that the perception and reality are beginning to change.

In government, that’s not necessarily the case. There are plenty of signs that it remains an enormous challenge and barrier to real change. Some procurements, particularly where agile software development is a core requirement, have been structured and executed in a way that would limit competition on some technology contracts solely to non-IT Schedule 70 holders, for example.

Whether Moore’s Law is about to expire or not, we live in a time when virtually everything we do is subject to immediate and dramatic change. Thus, while the pace of change has been historically fast since the dawn of the computer age, the continual emergence of new and disruptive technology applications has radically increased that pace such that the government could fall further behind, faster than ever. That puts an especially high premium on strategies that enable the government to move quickly and change smartly.

Unfortunately, I continue to hear from many colleagues inside and outside government that key workforce cohorts—particularly those in their peak career years—feel largely disconnected from the change and innovation movement. Correctly or not, they are rarely seen or tapped as sources of new thinking.

To date, much of the most innovative work in government has centered on improving the experiences of citizens and customers when they interact with government. That is both valuable and important. But as the shift in the commercial sector shows, the greatest potential for improving government’s performance and saving taxpayer money rests with the transformation of core business processes and operations. Improving customer service and user experience is crucial, but the extent of improvement is constrained by the extent to which the underlying processes can also be transformed. Achieving that end will require agencies to draw on the expertise of their most knowledgeable employees. Without that expertise, success will be incredibly hard to achieve.

There are many strategies for tapping this expertise, but few, if any, are widely evident in government today. We could, for example, take a hard look at how the procurement process incentivizes (or doesn’t) companies to bring innovative ideas to the table. We could more widely adopt non-traditional procurement rules under which some entities now operate, such as the Defense Innovation Unit/Experimental. And, as many companies are now doing, we could move away from special innovation cells or outposts, which by definition create an unhealthy dynamic, and instead build innovation processes into daily operations.

This brings me back to the Merage Institute competition. The Institute recognized several years ago that this demographic divide was impacting even one of the most innovative nations in the world. They launched the competition to both highlight that phenomenon and begin to address it. They recognized that intentionally democratizing transformation and innovation is ultimately essential to success. We would do well to recognize that as well.