# 596       Innovative Leader            Volume 13, Number 3                 March 2004

Extrapreneurs: Crossing Generations for Disruptive Innovation
by Roger A. Meyer, Ph.D.

Dr. Meyer is owner of Brainerd Consulting Services in Chattanooga, TN (phone 423.892.6000; email consultroger@netscape.net), assisting companies through evaluation, training and individual and group consultation.

Creativity is seeing new possibilities in old situations. It takes an understanding of the old combined with an ability to perceive what others have overlooked. In most corporations, changes are sequential, modifying existing products. But truly innovative, generally entrepreneurial, organizations are able to turn an old idea on its head, finding a unique approach to create new possibilities. Clayton Christensen writes about radical change in creating competitive, innovative products in The Innovator’s Dilemma (2003, Harper Business Essentials, New York, NY).  His primary example is the resistance by IBM, Control Data, Digital Equipment and others to shifting from the 14 inch computer hard drive to the 8 inch.  The same resistance was seen as Seagate and others introduced the 5.25, then the 3.5, 2.5, and 1.8 inch drives, as well as flash memory, as computers grew smaller.  In the case of many Internet startups, they developed groundbreaking technologies, practices, and products, but failed because they ignored basic, good business practices.  How can companies combine good business sense with creative edge; the best of the old with the new?

In the early twenty-first century, baby boomers will reach retirement and many companies will face challenges, both in developing new programs and products and in losing a significant portion of their corporate knowledge base.  Knowledge is as important in the change process, as creative people, capable of seeing things from a new angle.  Competitive pressures force many organizations to alter traditional employment practices. Among the changes, corporations must find ways to utilize young managers and professionals, capable of fresh perceptions, while retaining individuals who can apply the lessons and wisdom of the past.

Youth have the advantage of looking at situations from new perspectives, free from entrenched biases.  Being young also helps most people cognitively adapt to new situations more easily.  The drawback is that young workers lack the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of more mature individuals.  Well-developed information management programs for maintaining a corporate knowledge base are important.  But procedural summaries, cold statistics, and digital archives of previous projects do not provide the wisdom or long term view a seasoned manager can bring to the table.  Setting up a program to utilize retirees for several years as part-time consultants, coaches, and mentors allows for a continuity of knowledge over time.

Advising their younger colleagues in project or product development, mentoring and/or coaching younger colleagues, and providing consultation about specific issues, are ways part-time extrapreneurs can provide what the newer hires lack.  Many companies find they have downsized essential people and bring them back immediately to serve as consultants for a few months.  But this new approach involves retired professionals and managers, who stay current through their part-time involvement, having constructive input over five or more years. This goes along with Christensen’s statement that successful managers, “utilized some of the resources of the mainstream organization to address the disruption, but they were careful not to leverage its processes or values.  They created different ways of working within an organization whose values and cost structure were turned to the disruptive task at hand (p. 114).”

As Christensen points out, the organization must accept radical changes in order to bring about “disruptive” products and services.   One is creating an organization “small enough to get excited about small opportunities and small wins (p. 114).”   Smaller size will also assist in the integration of retired employees.  The organizational culture must be prepared to effectively use the retired consultants’ input.  Young managers may initially respond to input from older retirees as threatening to their status, authority, and autonomy.  Trust is essential for this alliance to become truly creative.  The message of cooperation must come consistently from the CEO.  At all levels, workers must be willing to consider the ideas presented by retirees, while not feeling constrained by them.  The emphasis must be on innovation that works, whether the ideas come from the older consultants or the younger staff.

As important as corporate culture is to successful implementation, the personality and interpersonal style of the extraprenuers are more so. All retirees in the new program need to be screened to determine their ability to handle a new role and to adapt to new situations as well as to determine their attitudes toward radical change and innovation.  Christensen points out that even good managers may lose effectiveness when they are focused on the present and not future potential.  A retiree who was a very dynamic and forceful manager may not be able to handle the new role of having only input and no control.  An older manager, who has developed a defensive and/or dogmatic stance, will create problems.  On the other end of the spectrum, a passive and withdrawn, yet highly knowledgeable, professional may lack the interpersonal skills to interact effectively.  Those hiring older consultants should select retirees who are not burned out and are still enthusiastic, having a desire to contribute positively.

Retirees with appropriate temperament and personality traits must be trained in their new role as an advisor. These older workers can best help the creative process by reviewing what is proposed as well as implemented procedures, looking for areas where they can give helpful input, and then advising the responsible manager.  They must accept that they no longer have the responsibility, or the stress, of managing the process.  In coaching or mentoring young managers they must accept that they have no control over the managers’ responses.  

Young managers must want to gain from these consultants.  In developing a knowledge database, the openness of communication and sharing of information is key to success.  Getting younger managers to allow extraprenuers to have sufficient knowledge of issues, so they can give appropriate input, is critical in this new paradigm.  In many organizations, individuals guard their knowledge base as a source of power and control.  However, in the creative process, new managers must become aware of problems and how they were effectively confronted and of options that led to dead ends.  With sufficient dialogue between the retirees and the younger employees, creative solutions can evolve, using the best from both groups.

Setting up flexible schedules for these part-time extraprenuers will be important in order to attract the best talent.  Many managers and professionals in the boomer generation do not want to continue the same high demands on their time and energy when they retire.  They want to enjoy their grandchildren, travel, get involved in hobbies, or try their hand in new challenges.  But some also want to have the same work rewards they enjoyed throughout their career.  Corporations must conscientiously plan ways to provide a positive experience for these retirees, in order to maintain their knowledge base.

Over the next several years, companies wanting to be truly creative must come to grips with two needs.  Maintaining the knowledge base held by key retirees, while also utilizing the creative ability of young workers.  Both are necessary in maintaining market edge and profitability through creative “disruptive technologies.”  Finding the right, bright, young workers as the economy comes out of a long retrenchment will be the easier task.  Retaining mature, knowledgeable, and wise individuals involved will require its own creativity.  Devising new human resources policies and procedures as well as changing corporate cultural are important.  However, the benefits of bringing together enthusiastic extrapreneurs and energetic young managers will provide an essential edge to corporations for both the short and long terms.   

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