I just read one of the strangest suggestions that has ever been offered on the topic of innovation. In a book that intended to suggest to companies how they can break out of business as usual and discover innovative solutions, the author suggested to build an innovation team by assembling a group of people from various disciplines and departments who ... and here comes the horrible bit ... have ten or more years of experience at a company.
On the surface, this might seem an entirely reasonable suggestion - seasoned people have a deep understanding of the firm's practices and culture and should be able to quickly focus on ideas that have the greatest potential. However, there's a reason that firms remain rutted in their present practices - and the reason is typically these very same people. Employees with ten-plus years experience are knowledgeable, but they are very often institutionalized - it's a stereotype, granted, and there are likely some who can keep a fresh perspective after being at the same job for such a long period of time, but it's likely such individuals are unusual, especially in established corporate cultures.
If you've observed or participated in focus groups, you're likely familiar with the mother-hen type who herds the rest of the group away from anything unfamiliar: they'll interrupt someone in mid-sentence with a phrase such as "that won't work here" or "that's not the way we do things at this company" to squelch anything that breaks from traditional practices, until the conversation collapses and other participants stop making suggestions, and the exercise is thoroughly undermined so that no truly new ideas are produced.
This seems to happen fairly often: get a ten-year veteran at a firm in a room with people with less time on the job - even if the others have more experience in their profession or industry - and they smother innovation rather than creating it. Whether it's the desire for others to kowtow to their years of service to the firm or the malicious joy of the barren spinster who shoves a pregnant young woman down a staircase to make her miscarry, the tendency to obstruct others is an ugly and despicable part of human nature, but it's a part of human nature nonetheless that expresses itself, almost without fail, in any group of people.
But to escape the dark quagmire of the psychology of the institutionalized employee as an individual and consider the problem they create for their firm ... being innovative necessitates defining a possible future, unencumbered by the limitations of the past. If you begin by considering what has been done over the past decade, rather than what might be done if you break from the current way of things, then you're looking in the opposite direction to where your future lies.
That's not to say that institutionalized persons do not have a contribution to make to a process of innovation - but absolutely not as part of a team that comes up with fresh ideas. Instead, their value is in following their nature: to smother and destroy any new ideas that don't fit what they perceive to be the corporate culture, and to which tenured employees will refuse to adapt. The tenured employees are the perfect group to assess what ideas will be difficult to implement, because they and their kin are the very ones who will create obstacles and sabotage plans in an attempt to avoid moving form the comfort and familiarity of tradition.
However, their smothering instinct must be mitigated: when an institutionalized employee suggests that an idea won't work, ask the question "why?" and do not accept "it just won't" for an answer. Sometimes, it's just naysaying and cynicism, but other times there is a valid reason that a given idea will not work given the current resources and culture of the institution. Then, dismiss the given - would the idea work if we addressed the factors that prevent it from being viable? Is the organization able and willing to make those changes to gain the potential benefit?
Sifting through ideas and examining all the things that could prevent them from succeeding is a valuable task, but it needs to be a later step in the process of innovation - and to the original point, it's certainly not something to be done at the very beginning, or in a brainstorming session - including the institutionalized insiders will smother innovation before it can even begin.