The Impact of Generational Differences on Innovation

The development of a culture of innovation our organizations must consider both the existing organizational culture as well as the generational differences which make up this culture. Recognizing these factors will help you create the right environment that fits into the uniqueness of your organization.

What is Innovation?

Innovation is not the result of a lone genius inventor who comes up with a great idea. Rather, it is a collaborative process; where people in many fields contribute to the implementation of new ideas. Innovation is a strategy – a method for achieving corporate goals. Teams are very important to the process and should include people who will challenge the status quo. The person who moans and groans and complains the most may be the source of the next great innovation!

The Impact of Generational Differences in Organizations

Our ability to work in a collaborative way is often affected by the different generations so apparent in our organizations today. Generational differences affect our culture, our work environment, our work relationships and consequently, the innovation process. Why? Because each generation has different approaches to working individually versus collaboratively, how they generate ideas and so on. Not to suggest that there is only one way or preferred way; rather, to be aware of how to use these strategies to strengthen the innovation process.

The different generations span almost 50 years in an organization today. How a teenager deals with a situation is different than a 60 year old. Actually – how a teenager expresses and manages themselves is different than all other generations. Well, let’s not go there!!

Here are the four generally accepted breakdowns of generations. I found it quite interesting when doing this research in that there are no commonly held dates that mark each generation. So I will provide you with the time periods which I developed from an average of them all.

About the Four Generations that are Working in Tandem

The Old Folks were born before 1945 and are retiring fast. Nevertheless, there are at least 63 million still working in the US alone. Now I used the term “old folks” because that is how we often view them. However; it is wrong to suggest they are incapable. Rather, most are still energetic and enthusiastic. They are not ready to retire and not certain what they would retire to. Hence, they want to continue to work.

When it comes to innovation – they are very independent thinkers and often believe that some people are just naturally more creative than others. Hence, their engagement in the innovation process is often an eye-opener for them. They have most often discounted their ideas as unworthy of exploring. This is often due to previous experiences within their organizations when suggestions were shot down, ideas not accepted and so on.

The Baby Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. This is perhaps the most talked about group. There are more of them than any other group. They are very much a part of the current work force, certainly not ready for retirement. Many baby boomers are still looking for career advancement – their “last career move,” as they say. Most are definitely comfortable with some technology. It has become a part of their lives.

When it comes to innovation – they are not too different from the Old Folks. They are usually very independent thinkers but they understand that everyone can be creative. During their long history of corporate experiences they have seen too many great ideas discounted, wonderful innovations discarded and too much political intervention which has prevented any capability of building a culture of innovation within their organizations. Therefore Baby Boomers will likely need to be persuaded that any new effort to implement an organizational culture of innovation is serious.

The Generation X were born between 1965 and 1979. They are the smallest generation in terms of numbers. They are the first group to consistently demonstrate more independence of thought yet are quite loyal to their organizations – if it is willing to “listen” to their ideas. Technology for them is one of considerable need. They are quite apt to want the latest tool available.
When it comes to innovation – they are accustomed to working both independently and in teams. They know that everyone can be creative – they just need to learn how to “let go” and open their minds. Nevertheless, many have become jaded through bad corporate experiences and working within cultures which are unsupportive of innovation.

The Generation Y were born between1980 to 1998. They represent a growing number of individuals in the workforce. That is why there has been so much discussion around the impact this is having on organizations. They are great at root cause analysis because they question and ask “Why?” and “Why not?” more often than any generation before them.

Technology has always been a part of their life. They have the highest demand on work-life balance and will give no organization any loyalty if not so deserved. Consequently, they have the greatest impact on the shaping of a culture which supports innovation. They are very independent thinkers but work well in teams. Many of their university projects were team efforts.

They are also the most tolerant of differences than any generation before them. That is, different cultural background, of others. They have often been referred to as the “Boomerang” generation because they never seem to leave home.

When it comes to innovation – they are very team-oriented and know that everyone’s creativity can be tapped. They are eager to see the culture change within their organizations. And if they don’t – they may feel less loyal in the long term.

The Generation Z (zed) are the babies of Generation X. They’re not working yet but they are so comfortable with technology that by the age of 2, the computer is already becoming their most familiar toy. Now, I wonder what it’ll be like when they hit the workforce in another 10 years.

Organizational Cultures that Support Innovation

One of the great challenges in continuing to define our organizational cultures according to the various generations that work within this environment is that it does not account for the fact that China, India and other Asian countries are growing rapidly and their innovation engines are driven pre-dominantly by Generation X and Y. The description of generational impact is largely focused on North American and European birth rates. I believe that over the next 20 years, this discussion will change focus considerably.

In considering North American culture, each generation has different work ethics and expectations. Providing a lot of “free time” to think and create might be a challenge for the baby boomers whereas it might present an opportunity for the Generation X and be an expectation for Generation Y.

Knowledge and the sharing of knowledge and ideas are dependent upon the generation. For example, generation baby boomers see knowledge as power and something to be protected. Generation X sees knowledge as something that belongs to everyone and creates the basis for building new relationships and fostering the generation of ideas – the first part of innovation. Generation Y see knowledge that is something to be shared with everyone. They use blogs, instant messaging, etc. to share information with individuals with whom they’ve never even met.

Tom Hadfield, born in 1982, sold his company, “” for 25 million pounds when he was 17 years old. He said, “Young people have a competitive advantage when it comes to innovation. Young innovators are open-minded and have a tendency to be disruptive – and to challenge the status quo. I also think our naivety is perhaps our greatest asset because we have no idea we might fail. We’re also a pretty enthusiastic bunch.”


To create a culture that supports innovation, be aware of the impact of generational differences on your process for innovation and make sure to meet the needs of your team accordingly. You will optimize your leadership efforts and more likely get the results you were hoping for with this simple idea in mind.

Michael Stanleigh

Michael Stanleigh, CMC, CSP, CSM is the CEO of Business Improvement Architects. He works with leaders and their teams around the world to improve organizational performance by helping them to define their strategic direction, increase leadership performance, create cultures that drive innovation and improve project and quality management. Michael’s experience spans public and private sector organizations in over 20 different countries. He also delivers presentations to businesses and conferences throughout the world. In addition to his consulting practice and global speaking he has been featured and published in over 500 different magazines and industry publications.

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