Why are Senior Executives Failing to Innovate?

Why theoretical synthesis matters, and culture trumps


In a recent article published by HBR (Are CEO’s too old to innovate) Walter Frick examines a few studies conducted, examining the peak age of great inventors (see Figure 1). To summarize the findings, Frick examines research – originally published by Benjamin Jones in 2010, which shows that the bulk of an innovator's work was completed during their 30’s and 40’s, and of which, only 14% completed any innovative work after the age of 50. The dilemma arises when we examine HBR’s list of top 100 best-performing CEOs, where the median age is 59. If innovation, which is crucial to so many organizations future revenue streams, does not stem from the top, where does it stem from?

Figure 1)

Theoretical synthesis emerges as a contender, in explaining the peak age of great innovation, as well as the innovation challenge facing senior executives passing the half century mark. Figure 2 – examines the first range of theoretical synthesis, these are all the freshly minted, undergraduate or graduate degree students. For the past 4-8 years, they have discussed the newest theories in business, innovation, history, mathematics, and have their own perspective of the world. The ability to connect theory to what is being experienced and observed drives innovation, leading to new methods in process engineering, product development, and organizational evolution.

Figure 2

A role of authority, managing a small-empire, or a mid-level manager type of position, in which an employee can now apply his or her hypothetical synthesis with practical experience, leads to an enhanced understanding of the business, and a higher frequency of innovation. Most of the recent graduates do not immediately enter roles of authority. This dampens their ability to effectively communicate their ideas, and thus influence senior leaders. As they evolve, and grow – they take on higher levels of responsibility, and are then able to communicate effectively, helping push their ideas and impact on the organization. Figure 3 depicts the time of authority and hypothetical synthesis, and is attributable to a multitude of other factors. Idea-friendly organizations can drive great inventors earlier on; subjecting organizations to a culture where a tolerance for failures is expected when experimentations are undertaken.

Figure 3

The median age of 59 in the top 100 best-performing CEO's is not thus due to their ability to innovate, but the more attributable quality of their success seems to stem from developing a thriving culture where young employees are rewarded for ideas. The top organizations senior executives put aside their risk-averse, self-emerging ideas. They embrace the newcomer, the different perspective. They are able to identify an idea practitioner, and help mold his message in a way that gains traction within the organization, and drive value for the company as a whole. These executives are mentors, coaches, and run occasional interference. So don’t be concerned with your executives failing ability to innovate, and be more concerned with their ability to identify, coach, mentor and develop the up and coming innovators.


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