The separation effect required for innovation

Exploit and Explore 3I have recently been in some different discussions about the merits and balances required to manage incremental and radical innovation. Partly this is in preparation for a workshop later this month but partly from a conversation, I am having with a sizable, well-respected organization, with its head office based here in Europe.

In the conversation within the organization we were discussing the breakdown in their treatment of incremental and radical and they suggested this was being managed within an “ambidextrous structure” yet I was not convinced. I have to point out this was only a part of a broader story on the difficulties of managing conflicting innovation demands that they were having.

One key constraint in their thinking I felt was not having distinct units as they were trying to manage incremental and radical through the same process and that, for me, is a basic mistake.

I feel to truly claim an ambidextrous organization you have to be working towards the conceptual model offered by Reilly and Tushman on the “Ambidextrous Organization”

Reilly and Tushman’s argument was to truly flourish, not only do you need to maintain a variety of innovation efforts but  it does need more of a recognition of the full organization to manage these differently, not in isolation or selected parts of your organization. You need to consciously address the differences and build those into the twin process of managing incremental and radical. Let me offer my take on this.

Simultaneous the need is to manage the differences in Exploration & Exploitation.

I love how two words have such potential in their meaning and approach. It is the same as ‘divergence or convergence’. They clarify distinct differences, you don’t merge them, and you treat them as one leading into the other (divergence into convergence) or running in parallel (exploration & exploitation) for good reason.

Exploring and exploiting do need separation, at least in our thinking or applying. In organizations that practice ambidextrous design, they separate the new, exploratory units from their more traditional, exploitative ones, allowing for different processes, structures and cultures to emerge but it is at the senior management level they maintain tight links. This way you can pioneer more breakthrough or even disruptive innovation while allowing the incremental gains to be focused, and optimized without this consistent set of  distractions of trying to balance the two within the same resource pool or trying to squeeze it through the same assessment and timeline process.

It is very different when you have to go on exploratory expeditions which are harder to determine and the last thing is having the constant pressure of balancing for time and between types of innovation. Exploration & Exploitation approaches need really different measuring metrics also.

It is at the senior leadership level any conflicts are managed not within the unit or organization department or even by a head of the unit if the organization does not manage in this ‘ambidextrous’ way. If you attempt to manage these together I think you don’t extract the full benefits you can gain from having this more dedicated focus, working on distinctly different innovation needs.

What does radical mean to you?

The other issue I have is the use of ‘radical’ within the discussion. This can create such different meaning for each of us and can certainly be preconceived, so it already becomes hard to let go or change. Also ‘radical’ is often felt in larger organizations as something that simply does not fit as they are not a radical organization but a careful, often too cautious one.

So ‘breakthrough’ seems to be a more natural fit and sits opposite of ‘incremental’ far more in my mind and it seems most others, worried over the ‘radical’ label. For incremental you exploit  through upgrading, adding more choice or building on what you presently offer, whereas you explore far more for breakthrough projects.

You can rightly point out there are numerous different type approaches and I recently wrote on what is the appropriate design within our organization (http://bit.ly/zdUhKp ) using radical I know. Your type is partly determined by your structure and its degree of optimization of its potential flexibility and what you need to achieve.

So what are differences to be recognized for Exploring and Exploiting?

The understanding has to come back to alignment, the alignment to strategic intent (of the innovation need) and the recognition of distinct differences in critical tasks. It is defining the differences is the role of the leader, who is either managing incremental or breakthrough innovation,as they should focus on different competences, controls, rewards and the environment you are expected to work within, to deliver these as effectively as possible. It is difficult to ‘flip’ between the two as they call for distinct mindsets.

Again it is the power of the difference in thinking about these. Using the comparison of exploitative versus exploratory in this two-word comparison that I love, does give you the real differences in the focus that needs to be recognized and undertaken.

Exploitative focus Exploratory focus
Incremental Breakthrough
Cost Growth
Operational Entrepreneurial
Formal Fluid
Rigid Adaptive
Linear Self-organizing
Attainment Grasp
Efficiency Experimenting
Development Research
Continuous Discontinuous
Inside-the-box Outside-the-box
Analytical Investigative
Examine Explore
Verify Detect
Extract Probe
Protect Challenge
Productive Milestones
Lower-risk Risk-taking
Directive, top-down Visionary, involved

I’m sure you can extend this list even more but the point is that the difference in mindset is significantly opposite. Can you apply these within the same business group or unit? I seriously doubt it.

Eating from the same innovation stew pot everyday might not be the best solution.

As we think of innovation we have to be careful not to limit ourselves, not just in approach or types but in the way we set about and manage this. Trying to bring all aspects of innovation activity into one ‘pot’ means you end up with an often underwhelming stew. It simply fails to really deliver, as you failed to do the necessary separating and distinctive preparations that all the parts needed to be achieved as your end result, to meet the different market needs that are around.

You need to separate, the innovation that sets about protecting the core, building and strengthening it and that that pushes and extends the business beyond.  These really require really different mindsets in approaching and managing across the organization.  Not just in  isolated pockets struggling to balance the different demands being placed on them.

Within these ‘collective’ silo’s they can’t differentiate distinctly enough and until this is fully understood it constrains and adds unnecessary pressures. Unless you address this  it is never fully appreciated across the organization on what is needed to be going on and how you should support and measure it’s results. Bundled up it all becomes a compromise.

There needs to be this realization that incremental and breakthrough are so different in activities, processes, structure, cultures and metrics to attempt to achieve the optimized effect, you need this ‘dual effect’. Having a clear separation in managing incremental and breakthrough innovations is more effective and efficient but please don’t tip them in in the same pot, but distinct and separate innovation ‘cooking’ mediums, to achieve a more outstanding and differentiated set of results where compromise was not down to being mixed into the same general approach.

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4 thoughts on “The separation effect required for innovation

  1. Hi Paul – quite right. Breakthrough/radical whatever you call it almost always has a lower chance of getting to market, so shouldn’t be measured on the same criteria as incremental projects. Unless there is structural separation, there is unlikely to be a queue of people to work on “unsuccessful” projects.

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  2. Pingback: Top 10 innovation and ideas management internet links – weekly round-up 9th March |

  3. Pingback: Striving for the innovation balance: between exploring and exploiting. | Paul4innovating's Innovation Views

  4. Pingback: So how do you manage exploiting and exploring for Innovation? | Paul4innovating's Innovation Views

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