No generation is as simple as we tend to treat it, and this is as true of our older workers as it is of our younger ones. Contrary to popular belief, older workers don’t exist to frustrate the young, or vice versa. So how can you tap into the innovative potential of older workers?
First, it’s worth asking why older workers face being stereotyped as inflexible and lacking in innovative spirit. While some may deserve the label, it often instead comes from two sources. Their role as a source of institutional knowledge, and a lack of communication in both directions.
The first can be summed up as “There’s nothing new under the sun.” Older workers have likely seen what feels like a fresh new idea before. And it’s their job to point out why it’s not already in place. This can come off as stifling when it’s presented the wrong way: “That didn’t work.” “We tried that already.” “We don’t do things that way.”
The second is a bit more difficult. Older team members and younger ones may struggle to see each other’s worldview. And while it’s tempting to write it off as one or the other’s problem, it’s a two-way street you’ll need to meditate. Empathy and thoughtfulness can only be encouraged, not enforced.
Everyone should take notes when it comes to innovation.
First, make sure that every worker, regardless of age, is involved in your innovation strategy. Your platform should be open to everyone and allow everyone to listen. This practice will engage everybody and make sure you tap into everyone’s pool of creativity.
A standing guideline for any innovation strategy is to ask detailed questions, and your older workforce, in particular, should be asked for their opinions and organizational history in detail. Let’s say you propose an idea and somebody immediately pipes up, “Oh, we tried that twenty years ago and it didn’t work out.”
The best response is “I didn’t know that! Do you have any details about it?” Dig into this institutional history, and learn from the past. Encourage them to dig into any unquestioned assumptions or needs that might have undercut it the first time. When you’ve got an idea that seems workable, take it to them and draw on their knowledge.
This sets a standard beyond just reaching out. Part of establishing empathy is leading by example. If your workers see you communicating with and listening to everyone, they’ll take notes and follow your lead. You may still need to settle arguments, and some generational gaps can’t be bridged at work, but encouraging and modeling empathy can help.
Don’t forget that older workers are potentially representatives of your customer base, so it makes sense to consider carefully their input into your innovation initiatives.
Everybody on your team deserves a chance to show off their creativity and show off their knowledge. Ensuring that older workers get an equal voice at the table will improve your innovation strategy and help everyone relate to each other and understand everyone’s perspective.