In large corporations we have learned that we need to work with both Exploratory and Exploiting Ways of Working. To have this tension or bifunctionality is also called to be ambidextrous.
A blogger, Tim Castelle (in Blogging Innovation), has brought up the theme of the tensions that occur when you deal with 2 extremes simultaneously.
I will steal with pride some of his material. He defines ambidextrous firms as those who simultaneously can handle ideas that allow them to take advantage of what they’re really good at (exploitation) while also being able to handle novel new ideas (exploration). This is a hard balance to maintain – the two processes require quite different management skills, different processes, and different measures of success. Exploitation is usually about operational efficiency, while exploration is about experimentation and risk. This was one tension. Here are six other tensions;
Now versus the future: Our natural tendency is to focus on now, the coming quarter. However, innovation is really about the future – we bridge gaps between our performance right now and where we want it to be. This is exactly what we are trying to accomplish in our innovation strategy.
Repair versus excel: If we are above average at some things, and below average at some others, where do we invest to improve? Do we repair to get the below-average things up to a benchmark, or do we try to excel even more where we already are good?
Analysis versus intuition: In The Design of Business, the author Roger Martin talks about how design-driven innovation is able to balance the tension between analysis and intuition. Organizations often have one dominant mode of decision-making. Where are You today?
Planned versus accidental: Is innovation a process that can be managed successfully, so that we are able to consistently perform well at it? Or is the uncertain nature of new ideas so strong that innovation success is mostly accidental? How can we both control variation and embrace it?
Structure versus emergence: to recreate innovative success we often need structure – processes, technologies and tools that support innovation. However, as the market shifts around us this structure might prevent us from reacting to change as quickly as we need to. How to have both?
Big versus small: is it easier to innovate when we are big – with market power and established network relationships? Or is it easier when we are small, so that we aren’t tied to history and old ideas? How can You be both big and small in Your company?
This is where another of Roger Martin’s ideas is useful – to manage these tensions we need to use Integrative Thinking, which is defined as the “ability to constructively face the tensions of opposing models, and instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generating a creative solution of the tensions in the form of a new model that contains elements of the individual models, but is superior to each”. This is not new. The clergyman Charles Simeon said in 1750 that “the truth lies not in one extreme or in the middle – it’s in both extremes”!
These seven tensions aren’t solved by either/or choices –they need both/and decisions, but preferably without compromises that are neither/nor. To be good at innovation, we have to integrate these seeming opposites within our organization. This is both cognitively and managerially challenging. However, the better we are able to do this, the more successful we’ll be at innovation….and we will!