Remember when you were asked in school what you wanted to be when you grow up? If your class was anything like mine you were surrounded by future astronauts, pro athletes, and dancers, eager to take on the stars, stadiums, or stages of the world.
When we are young, everything seems possible. After all, there's little to lose, and everything to gain. In fact, many scientists, artists, and revolutionaries peak at a young age. Physicist Albert Einstein wrote his Nobel Prize winning works when he was in his twenties. Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat [pictured] had his breakthrough at a similar age. The famed Joan of Arc even became a French war hero being only in her teens.
As we age and start attaining status, possessions, maybe a family, and other precious things, we change from risk-seeking to risk-averse, we live more in the 'can' than in the 'could'. We study accounting instead of astrophysics, we go out instead of work out, we dance in bars instead of at the barré. Most of us begin holding on to what we have, to conserve rather than to create. Only few people manage to stay young at heart and in mind, to keep pushing boundaries. Revolutionary thinkers like Apple founder Steve Jobs or two-time Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Marie Curie are the exception from the already exceptional.
Interestingly, there are a few parallels between human lifecycles and those of companies:
It is often start-ups that come up with ground-breaking innovations. Established companies tend to cling to past successes and innovate only incrementally. They prefer perfecting technologies they understand well, and to which their asset base is well matched. In times of technological disruption, today’s industry leaders consequently often find themselves at risk of being challenged, if not put out of business altogether, by new entrants willing to disregard existing industry paradigms.
Car giants like 80-year-old General Motors appear somewhat awestruck, as they see their market capitalizations eclipsed by erstwhile tiny Tesla at the tender age of 14 years - an electric car company start-up that dared to leapfrog traditional technologies to become the most valuable US automaker. Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen coined an expression for this hesitation of incumbents to disrupt themselves before others do: "The Innovator's Dilemma".
Let’s be clear: Radical innovation isn't everything. Older companies, like their human counterparts, tend to have at least two great advantages over newcomers: experience and assets to fall back on. Tech Methusela Microsoft may have missed trends in mobile; however, on the back of their strong assets and incremental innovation, Microsoft has been able to stage an impressive comeback in cloud services. Turnarounds are something that only few start-ups get to have a go at. Experience and assets would surely have helped quite a few fledgling companies out of the holes-turned-graves, they had dug for themselves.
Many successful entrepreneurs have mentors that help them along the way, be it with advice or helpful contacts. Fundamental principles in business and life stay surprisingly constant - this is where experience and a network help. But the benefits do not only go one way: Mixing young and old people can extend lives and improve their quality, too.
However, it can be hard for different generations to engage in valuable exchange, both in life and in business. If you are, too, a regular recipient of unsolicited advice from your parents or have tried countless times to explain to them how to operate their iPhones, I’m sure you can relate. Start-ups brought in-house by corporate acquirers often experience that also in business mixing different generations can bring challenges with it.
So, here's three ideas how to change intergenerational collaboration for the better:
1. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
This "habit" borrowed from Stephen Covey’s best-selling book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" emphasises that we should listen and focus our attention fully on the other person and what they are trying to say first, and let it sink before we speak. This can go a long way in improving our understanding and thus our communication, especially with a different generation.
2. Agree to disagree, but value the differences.
It is highly unlikely and should not be the goal to agree on everything. However, it is helpful to at least try to understand where the other side is coming from. We can often benefit from their unique insights, if applied to our own situation, be it their fresh perspective or their valuable experience.
3. Dare to do things differently - you may be in for a (positive) surprise.
And sometimes, it may help, if we all simply allow ourselves to try a different approach suggested to us. We may be sure it will fail - but more often than not, we may end up being pleasantly surprised at the learnings that come from it. Old tricks may find new applications, and old dogs may learn a few new tricks after all.