In this post I wanted to explain my thinking through on this ability to be ‘ambidextrous’, knowing the difference of when to exploit and when to explore as essential to leveraging innovation, in all its forms and watching out for some of the traps in not managing this well.
Managing this, in all honesty, though, is hard to get the balance right but highly valuable if you do achieve it, it can transform the business. Many of our organisations struggle to manage both successfully as they tend to focus more on separation mostly in organisational structures alone as their attempt to become ambidextrous. It is far more than ‘just’ this. Get the balance right across the organisation’s design and in its leadership management, it becomes a very powerful mechanism for accelerating performances by delivering significantly new innovation and equally sustaining and leveraging the core business you have today.
Recently I contributed a blog post over on the Hype Innovation Blog ” Balancing Exploitation & Exploration for Changing Performance” that opens up the subject but then extensively dives into three examples of Apple, GE and Google that are working in highly ambidextrous ways, pursuing exploiting and exploring in their own unique ways.
The important point is that the make-up of how, when, what and where to exploit and explore, can certainly be very different for each organisation, all dealing in their different contextual settings. You need to develop a “dual mentality” in managing and be watchful for dealing with this as it can create a real deep-lying set of tensions, yet it is within these tensions and how they are managed will determine eventual success of getting this balance right.
We often face conflicts on knowledge acquisition, absorption and translation
How do you switch from the pursuit of efficiencies, from what is often well-established, into the probing of the unknown or not easily quantifiable? We need to balance the interplay between the two.
As we pursue the alignment and adaptation of the two, this is where we get into a serious conflict by attempting to manage this in one fixed ‘state’ or the other. You start questioning, looking for synergies, searching (often by default) for the complementary, attempting definitions, drawing connotations and meaning from these far too early and this has consequences. You muddle your thinking between when to exploit and when to explore effectively. Management is often looking to close something down, to make a decision based on the present known facts, exploiting as quickly as possible what we do best, yet there are many occasions they should stay open, wait and allow time to explore more, to gain more insight. Knowing when to do one or the other is the judgement needed.
You can so easily get into further conflict as exploitation tends to be built on past knowledge, or pursuing and acquire new knowledge to build on existing knowledge. Whereas the kind of knowledge needed for exploration, is significant new knowledge acquisition and requires rapid absorption, and one might not be necessarily helpful to the other, as the purpose and need are sometimes radically different.
You struggle to find the consistency of purpose or even commonality when the type of knowledge that is required can be so starkly different, built either on the known or in pursuit of the unknown. This is why gaining an absorptive capacity understanding becomes important in the context of what you are attempting to do. Knowledge ‘feeds’ advancement and equally provides the ‘fuel’ for innovation but they mostly come at you differently to manage, absorb and translate into their meaning.
Managing exploit and explore depends on your situation
Unless you have a “guiding star” that comes partly from a vision market understanding and mission, that can help you decide the emphasis between these two, it makes managing these dual activities as simply difficult. Is it one that is focused on productivity, cutting costs, ensuring ongoing quality and building reputation, or one pushing out by experimenting, adapting constantly and searching for viability and its validation, how can you determine where you put your emphasis?
I would argue it really does depend on your orientation and what you want to achieve. It is where the organisational focus lies and the necessary defining conditions and the market dynamics will mostly decide that? How volatile or challenging is the market, is it growing steadily or rapidly undergoing dynamic growth? Do we have to pursue a more radical agenda of innovation or can we evolve on a more incremental path? Do we place our emphasis on consolidating our core or searching for concepts that radically alter our position?
Are you in pursuit of a logical and hopefully, coherent business model, leveraging all the efficiencies which need to work in an orderly, functioning, well planned and managed ways, one where you are making sure your innovation activity is built into its well-established structures and processes? Or are you wanting to encourage a greater freedom for individuals to make personal decisions and encourage the taking of initiatives to be more radical and distinctive in their innovation approaches, deliberately introducing this into their work design, offering high levels of flexibility and self-organizing, allowing for an emerging model to emerge as against fitting into a well-established and often rigid model.
The case for clear separation
There is a number of highly respected people who suggest clear separation must occur. They pose the questions: “Are exploiting and exploring at two ends of a spectrum?” Are they not so different that they need clear separation? We need to separate out the present day-to-day work, with the innovation future work. This has merit.
I think if you foresee a radically different business emerging then this clear separation makes greater sense but how do you reconcile some of the underlying values? How important is the culture, the history, the brand or image, how do you rotate or attract the necessary talent. How do you fund the ’emerging’ business, does this existing business finance this and if so, will it constrain the new business in open or hidden ways? if you create distinct entities, giving them completely different operating environment, will they be capable of being merged back later?
In my examples I used on the Hype post, the one that is a real test of management is the Google decision to separate out its moonshot’s from its core, by creating a new holding company, Alphabet, to treat them distinctly differently. As the founders, their view has been: “the whole point is that Alphabet companies should have independence and develop their own brands”, then separation becomes a clear decision. Yet it does seems there are some initial tensions occurring that will need well-managing and different management thinking to manage this transition, it will be an interesting one to watch how this evolves.
A dual management approach
The argument goes and it might surprise you, by supporting core businesses and new emerging innovation units actually requires leadership to be constantly inconsistent. They must totally live the dual agenda otherwise, it fails. It needs significant management attention to managing the tensions this duality brings. When leaders do take this ambidextrous approach, they are forcing change but it can be very demanding to get this exploit and explore balance right.