Want to drive innovation? Bring young and old young people together

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What ideas might teaming students with retirees generate? Image: Hans Braxmeier/Pixabay

Ulrich A. K. Betz
Department Head Future Insight, Merck KGaA
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  • Pharmaceutical companies have long sought outside experts and insights to drive new ideas and innovation;
  • Teaming talented students with retirees provides a new way to discover meaningful ideas and concepts which can be stress-tested by the older, more experienced generation;
  • How their collaboration is facilitated, supported and inspired is important to its productivity.

Long before Henry Chesbrough had coined the Open Innovation Paradigm, the influx of new ideas and technologies into an organization from outside a company’s boundaries had been an integral part of pharmaceutical corporations’ strategies.

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Working with established academic researchers in the frame of strategic partnerships is an established approach and the war for graduate talent, first mentioned in a McKinsey study in 1997, has become more intense in recent years. Yet there are another two kinds of undervalued strategic resources available that can be approached and combined to generate new innovative concepts: young talented students who have not yet entered the labour market for regular employment and retirees who left the company long ago.

The concept has been implemented as the Innovation Cup at the international science and technology company Merck KGaA has already created considerable value. Ideas to enable the generation of new medicines based on the induced modification of target proteins, to generate valuable proteins from plastic waste and to stimulate the body's own immune system to fight cancer cells have been generated by some of the brightest students teamed with retirees.


The concept has the potential to boost the innovation capability of organizations all over the world. It helps generations work together in a synergistic and highly productive way. It can change our societies and be a role model for ageing populations and has the power to contribute to building a better world together. Based on seven years of experience running the Innovation Cup, a series of essential factors have emerged that are critical to why the concept works so well:

The synergy of generations

A cross-generational innovation activity that brings together three generations – young talented students, employees, retirees – requires a fine balancing of these three groups. Over-dominance of active professionals must be avoided, which can be achieved by limiting their presence during the activities. In addition, the team’s proportion of young talents versus experienced retirees needs fine-tuning to create an optimal distribution of members who can provide fresh new ideas and members who can primarily stress test or experience-check these proposals.

The magic of new encounters

In general, a boost of creativity often results from exposure to new people, preferentially via face-to-face contact and direct exposure. The first days of an innovation-activity are the most creative and often during the initial face-to-face interactions a new idea emerges that no single individual has had before.

We have experimented with varying lengths of pre-meeting, online networking prior to a face-to-face Summer camp and found the time-benefit curve to be U-shaped. If there is not enough time prior to the start of the activity for participants to familiarize themselves with the ideas of fellow team members, then too much time during the face-to-face meeting is lost on understanding the idea before being able to contribute, amend or synthesize it into something bigger. On the other hand, if the time of pre-meeting networking is too long, there is no flexibility anymore at the face-to-face meeting, things tend to petrify and the creative magic of the first face-to-face contact is lost.

The right inspiration

A critical question in innovation activities is where the new great idea should come from. In our experience, most successful innovation teams could always base their success on an initial inspirational trigger that started a successful flow of events. For teams struggling to come up with a unique idea, screening literature (scientific publications, blogs, videos and conference abstracts) is a good starting point to spot an outstanding finding, a surprise, a singularity or oddity and to work from there.

The next steps are to do further research around the discovered publication, to explore how it could be exploited to solve a certain problem, to combine it with other findings and to add the team’s own spark of genius to advance to a new or amended idea from this inspiring starting point.

The power of competition

The importance of benchmarking the competition has been convincingly described before. Also, we have seen that the competitive element cannot be overestimated. Of importance are so-called dry-run-sessions. One day prior to the finals each team presents the current status of its idea pitch in front of the other teams. This routinely leads to an overall leap in the quality of presentations after teams have had a chance to implement best practice examples seen from other teams. In addition, the ability to position the team’s performance versus other teams and the desire to outrun the competition are vital motivators.

The most innovative economies in the world in 2020
The most innovative economies in the world in 2020 Image: Statista
Be good and be happy to awaken the force

In How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices, Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria defined the four-drive model of employee motivation. According to this, optimal employee motivation can be achieved if four drives are satisfied:

  • A chance to acquire – material goods and immaterial things like status, power and influence;
  • A chance to bond – interact with other people and form new relationships;
  • A chance to learn – explore new areas of life, practice new skills and satisfy our curiosity;
  • A chance to defend – be able to protect what is “ours” and drive away threats to our safety and security.

All these drives should be covered in an innovation activity process. In expanding the four-drive model, we found the ability to “do something good” to be another strong motivator. It is very satisfying to bring forward an idea that eases the suffering of patients, fights cancer or ends world hunger. In addition, the importance of being happy has been shown to be of critical importance for creativity and even success overall. Feeling good and joyful, experiencing beauty and fun and being happy are prerequisites for being able to work successfully.

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