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Learn From Stan Lee: Innovation is Not Just for the Young

I grew up a comic book nerd before nerd culture was cool. At the Observatory for Public Sector Innovation (OPSI), we talk a lot about storytelling as a critical skill for innovation, and there were few better storytellers than Stan Lee. When it was reported that Stan Lee died this week, I thought back to the endless hours I spent reading comic books, most of which Stan Lee had a hand in creating. He created entire universes that told poignant stories that touched on racial, social and societal issues in a way that had never been done before. What most people do not know about Stan Lee is that he did not publish his first comic until he was 39!

Having young people makes us innovative

The current trend I see is to look to young people as THE source of innovation. All over the world, I’ve heard governments discuss how the lack of innovation correlates to the lack of young people that think differently. In some ways, they are correct. Having a diverse workforce that is representative of the population that can bring new ideas into the public sector is important. Additionally, the lack of young people in government is concerning – but that is a complex discussion for another time.

Instead, I want to focus on the idea the most innovative ideas can come from anywhere. If you ask individuals around you about the ages of successful start-ups, most will say late twenties or early thirties, but this is just a popular misnomer. Harvard Business Review had an article from July of this year that showed that the most successful startup founder was actually 45 years old. Turns out, Stan Lee was actually a young success!

We can all be Stan Lee

So what does this mean for you? Well if I’ve learned anything from the Next Generation of Government Leaders Conference, it is that the readers of GovLoop are as diverse as the government itself. Therefore, let’s break it down:

The New Generation of Public Servants: There is nothing wrong with presenting new ideas, having a fresh perspective, or creating new solutions. You should continue to find your voice. At the same time, realize there is value to be gained from individuals across the organization. Don’t get discouraged when you are told that something has been tried before, but search for deeper context about what the project was, why it failed, and how you can learn from that to create a stronger and better innovative idea that has a better chance to succeed.

The Middle Career: Even if leadership isn’t recognizing your value as an experienced public servant (and I’ll get to leadership next), continue to have a voice. Be motivated to drive change, improve/transform the status quo and build upon your experience to create realistic changes that can have dramatic effects on the organization and value to citizens.

Leadership: Leaders need to recognize and understand that innovative ideas can come from anywhere, anybody and at any moment. Do not demotivate part of your workforce by idolizing youth, but instead encourage an environment where anyone can challenge the status quo and feel empowered to make a difference. While every public sector leader I have ever talked to strives for this, be aware that signaling a correlation between age and innovation is also a de-motivator to the rest of your workforce.

How to get started

Hopefully it is clear that innovation is not some magic formula that only the young have and once you hit 35, you are forced to forget it. But, everyone is biased and the temptation to snap back to “young = innovation” will be strong. So what are some easy ways to reduce this bias?

The first and the favorite of innovators all over the world is sticky notes. Instead of explaining the value of sticky notes, I will ask you to watch this short video from the Next Generation of Government Leaders 2015 by Josh Marcuse. There are also other examples like challenges, idea hunts and more.

The world lost a great innovator this week, but the way we honor his memory is to be inspired by the stories he told and the example he set. You are never too old to start innovating. As public servants, it is our collective responsibility to create a government that continuously evaluates and explores ways to increase the public value for citizens. While there are many issues that can enhance or hinder innovative ideas, age should not be one of them. We need more Stan Lee. Find your voice, find your passion and let’s get started.

Kevin Richman works as an Innovation Specialist for the OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation. Kevin’s primary focus is assisting governments to create sustainable innovation through improved individual and organizational innovation capacity and capabilities. Kevin works directly with leaders on organizational capabilities and sustainable innovation and with civil servants on building innovation skills and is working on reports around building organizational innovation capacity and innovative leadership. Kevin served 10 years in the U.S. government working on innovation, customer experience, leading people, data analytics and communications. Kevin is also on the advisory board for Young Government Leaders – a non-profit helping young leaders in the United States government build a community, develop professionally and build resilience. When Kevin’s not working, he’s traveling, watching television or playing (European) football poorly. You can reach Kevin on twitter @kirichman

Kevin Richman is also part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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