Can’t We All Just Get Along? Innovation and Bridging the Generational Divide

How to Fine-Tune Working Relationships between Boomers and Millennials to Create Harmonious Innovation Teams

 Innovation and Bridging the Generational DivideThe innovation book Robert’s Rules of Innovation: A 10-Step Program for Corporate Survival lays out a step-by-step framework of 10 Key Imperatives that an organization must take to achieve profitable business growth through innovation. While a structured, repeatable innovation process is critical to create and sustain innovation in a competitive, dog-eat-dog marketplace, it alone is not always sufficient to turn a great innovative idea into a profitable “on-the-store-shelves” reality. The recently published Robert’s Rules of Innovation II: The Art of Implementation, provides practical techniques to break down many of the barriers to innovation in business. Innovation requires more than just idea generation. After all, innovation cannot exist in a vacuum; but rather, an organization must build a culture of innovation to catalyze and sustain the creation of new ideas and then ultimately actually implement the ideas that make it out of the initial starting gate.

Innovation implementation often appears as a daunting, overwhelming process due to people-related issues and resultant roadblocks.[1] Successful business growth strategy and innovation implementation requires building an optimal innovation team. When finding and keeping the right people on your innovation team, remember that diversity is key—you should strive to be gender-neutral, take advantage of generational opportunities, and include a variety of profile types. While a diversity of backgrounds, ages, profile types, and work styles can lead to stimulating new perspectives and viewpoints that result in moving the innovation needle, diverse team members must learn to work in harmony in order to maximize their idea generating potential and see their ideas all the way through to implementation.

A notorious clash among innovation teams is the rift between boomers and millennials.[2] The older generation of workers are often frustrated and perplexed by millennials who are overeager to take on big projects and responsibilities right off the bat, instead of first paying their dues. Boomers often lament that their millennial coworkers are impatient and have short attention spans. On the flip side, millennials can become increasingly irritated and turned off by the boomers who “are seen as selfish (for having lingered in the workplace for so long, taking up those increasing rare plum spots), IT challenged, and at worst, believed to be guilty of the ruination of the American dream, the environment, the health-care system, Social Security, and so much more.”[3]

Multigenerational challenges and conflicts are not isolated incidents in today’s workplaces. While organizations can benefit from a diverse, multigenerational workplace, they must also have a game plan to overcome potential conflict and challenges. A 2014 survey by ASTD (the American Society for Training and Development) and Joseph Grenny, author of Crucial Accountability (McGraw-Hill, 2013) as well as Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when Stakes are High (McGraw-Hill, 2011), “found conflict among generations that result in wasted time and lost productivity. In fact, 90 percent of all survey respondents agreed that generational conflict was a time waster. According to the study, over one third of respondents said they wasted five or more hours of work weekly (12 percent of the work week) because of chronic, unaddressed conflict among different generations. The two generations who have the most difficult time working together are Baby Boomers and Millennials, according to survey respondents, but it appears that each generation has some problem with one or more of the others.[4]

As referenced in Robert’s Rules of Innovation II, in a multigenerational workplace, the authors[5] of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High bestow the following four introductory tips for starting to patch the rift between the two groups:

  1. Start on the Same Page: In order to achieve the innovation team’s mutual goals, begin the process with s statement of respect for fellow innovation team members and intent to achieve team goals. Current company culture is typically one where people don’t confront each either but rather go silent and let the problem escalate. Finally, when the upset person speaks up, they are speaking out of built-up festering anger. An effective communication strategy among innovation teams would be to let the leader speak for 30 seconds maximum and then give other team members sufficient time to respond and communicate. As a leader, reinforce to your team that you are not standing between them and their goals, but rather you have the same intent as they do to reach mutual goals.
  2. Lead with the facts: Instead of starting a conversation with a team member with judgments about their age or competency or your assumptions about their behavior (i.e., they are a lazy, coddled jerk), be as specific as possible and stick to the facts. Tell your team member what it was your expected to see (i.e., a deliverable turned in by a set deadline) and what you actually saw (i.e., a deliverable that was turned in two weeks post-deadline). Starting a conversation with the facts is a more effective communication technique than starting with conclusions, which can often be inflammatory, incorrect, and cause defensiveness and resentment.
  3. Remain nonjudgmental and don’t become hypercritical: Once you’ve stated the facts (see Tip #2, above), you’ve likely reached your half-minute of speaking time (see Tip #1, above). You’ve had your 30 seconds to state your case using the facts of the situation and now it’s time to stop talking, start listening, and turn the monologue into a productive dialogue. In the case that your innovation team member becomes defensive, mitigate these feelings by reassuring him or her of your positive intentions and mutual goals.
  4. Invite a Response: After sharing your concerns with your team member, encourage your team member to share his or her perspective on the matter. Make sure to listen. Remember, you are on the same team as this person and share the same intent to achieve the same mutual goals. As stated in Crucial Conversations, “Inviting a dialogue will result in greater openness, especially if that person has less authority, power, or age than you do.”[6]

For more information about how to promote and implement innovation at your company, check out the innovation books Robert’s Rules of Innovation: A 10-Step Program for Corporate Survival and the recently published Robert’s Rules of Innovation II: The Art of Implementation.


[1] For more information about the “People Aspects” of innovation implementation, check out this previously published RROI blog entitled “Innovation and the Art of Implementation (Part 2).”

[2] Who are millennials? Who are boomers? According to a April 25, 2016 article by Pew Research group, “Millennials have surpassed Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living generation, according to population estimates released this month by the U.S. Census Bureau. Millennials, whom we define as those ages 18-34 in 2015, now number 75.4 million, surpassing the 74.9 million Baby Boomers (ages 51-69). And Generation X (ages 35-50 in 2015) is projected to pass the Boomers in population by 2028.” See Pew Research Group’s “Millennials overtake Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation.”

[3] Robert’s Rules of Innovation II: The Art of Implementation (See p. 163)

[4] Managing the Multigenerational Workplace, UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

[5] The authors of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High (McGraw-Hill 2011) include Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler

[6] Robert’s Rules of Innovation II: The Art of Implementation (See p. 174)