5 lessons children can teach adults about innovation

Workshops help children learn about business, but the process can help business learn about creating new products and fostering different thinking.
Participants watch a Formula 1-style race at an UpStarts4StartUps event in Menlo Park, California.
Participants watch a Formula 1-style race at an UpStarts4StartUps event in Menlo Park, California.

Andrew Gaule, ACMA, CGMA, is convinced businesses can learn quite a bit about innovation from children. Gaule's organisation — UpStarts4StartUps — runs workshops geared toward encouraging children to develop entrepreneurial skills. But a by-product of observing children building a business from scratch in the workshop is insight adults can apply in their own organisations.

Here's how it works: Children between 8 and 14 years old accompany their parents to the office, experiencing the commute and the working environment. Workshops begin with a briefing, during which children discuss the brands they like. The children then choose a business idea that appeals to them — from making lavender bags, smoothies, or greeting cards to creating a puppet show or a YouTube advertising agency.

They then start to think about who the customer for their product might be and what the cost of the product or service is, and then look at case studies of star performers in each industry. Participants put a product together, create a shop or service proposition, and then sell these items to the adults present, all within a four-hour session. Although the primary aim is to teach children entrepreneurial skills, there is a lot of learning for the adults, too. According to Gaule, the children's work imparts the following lessons:

The value of a simple idea, and how quickly it can be executed. One of the biggest surprises for parents comes from watching their children come up with and work through an idea, all in four hours.

Parents can apply the concept of keeping ideas simple and executing quickly to their own projects. Some of them have spent months perfecting a presentation to put to their board about an innovative idea they have been developing, Gaule said. Seeing the children's achievements, they might wonder why their company doesn't also make up some samples of a new product they are working on and test the concept by opening a pop-up shop in that time frame.

Insight into an emerging demographic. Through the programme, adults get insight into members of an emerging consumer demographic and their way of thinking.

When the children choose a product to work on, they receive a kit that contains real-world business facts relevant to the task. For example, if they are working on creating promotional videos, a card reads: "Do you realise that [fashion and beauty vlogger] Zoella now earns an estimated £50,000 ($67,000) per month and has a multimillion-pound house after starting her YouTube channel at the age of 17 in 2008?" Or "Do you realise how much [the video game] Minecraft is worth? It was sold to Microsoft for $2.5 billion three years ago." From this discussion, parents get to learn about disruptors, innovative practice, and high performers in a range of sectors they may not have come into contact with otherwise.

Embracing the opportunities technology affords. Children are very technologically adept — they have already experienced online games, communication, and education. They are also aware of emerging alternative channels of distribution, such as Depop, a platform that allows teens to buy and sell clothing and build a following for their style. One former Upstarts participant now owns an online business that sells items sourced from charity shops.

Flexibility and adaptability. With the speed of technological change, it is becoming increasingly difficult for schools to equip children with the skills they will need in the world of work, Gaule noted. The responsibilities in a given role will become broader. Providing an opportunity to explore their own entrepreneurial ideas and how business works, by giving children a simple structure and process to develop their ideas into marketable solutions, is one element of building more agile adults. The parents also gain insights into working across functions and silos, as the children get involved in all aspects of the business, including manufacturing, branding, customer offering, prices and costs, social media, etc.

Creativity. The children are brave and creative, coming up with great ideas for products to sell and ways to market them. When pitching to the adults, the children are able to tailor their offering, proposing extra layers to suit the company the adults work for — such as an exclusive ad in a particular location within Minecraft.

Adults can be hindered or inhibited by blocks in their thinking, perhaps based on previous failures. Taking a leaf out of the children's playbook, adults can adopt some of the spirit of creativity to help their organisation adapt to the changes in the market, technology, and business models.

Samantha White is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.

Andrew Gaule, ACMA, CGMA, chats with participants about what goes into running a Formula 1 race.
Andrew Gaule, ACMA, CGMA, chats with participants about what goes into running a Formula 1 race.