Ambidextrous Innovation:

Can Leaders’ Best Explore and Exploit both Disruptive and Incremental Approaches
to Innovation?

post from Gaia Grant and Andrew Grant:

Most of us love to watch a
race. We like to observe the highs and lows of others as they experience a
hard-fought competition. It’s exciting to tap into the innate competitive

Indeed survival today seems to
depend upon our ability to literally get ahead as fast as possible. With the
market realities of the current economy, it appears that new players need to
continually break through the ranks in order to survive. These players test
more established racers with breakthrough innovations.

The success of the sharing
economy, where small nimble players such as Uber and Airbnb have been able to
overtake larger more established players, has revealed how easy it has become
to challenge the established leaders.

Yet such a rapid and
competitive approach to innovation may not be sustainable over the long term.

or be left behind

As addictive as the
adrenaline of this ‘innovation race’ might be, players are constantly coming
and going, and few survive. Fourteen of the world’s 15 most valuable technology
brands have disappeared since 1995 (Apple being the exception) through failing
to keep up with emerging technologies.

Even the apparent leaders in
the race seem to suffer from ‘premium position captivity’, and often cannot
maintain the leading position for long. Every time a disruptive new innovation
comes through, the bar is raised.

There will also always need
to be those who can move forward more carefully with incremental innovations
that ensure careful sustainable improvement when the latest fads have passed.  

The message seems to be fast
at all costs: that you must be proactive and anticipate future trends to
generate better, faster solutions, or risk being relegated to the back of the
pack, or even eliminated. But this message needs to be tempered with the
knowledge that systems that support (not hinder) need to be in place to keep
your wheels on the track.

Leaders need to be careful
they are not too easily seduced by the need for speed, but that they are
simultaneously able to build solid systems and structures to support change
over the long run.

The ‘innovation race’ needs
to be understood as both a long-term marathon, as well as a short-term sprint. There
will be times each approach is needed, and the leader needs be trained and
ready for both, as well as ensuring the organization is prepared for both.


In order to be successful,
leaders now need to be ambidextrous and balance these competing and
contradictory approaches to innovation.

So how can you successfully
navigate the innovation race? By including both sides of the following
paradoxes you will be able to remain flexible and resilient. Effectively
balancing these should enable you to keep one eye on what is happening in the
here and now, along with keeping another on the road ahead.

·     Freedom + Control: Allow people the freedom to
explore radical breakthrough ideas, whilst providing them the guidance needed
for steady and incremental change.

·    Openness + Focus: Openness and diversity are
essential for the ignition of breakthrough ideas, while people also need the
opportunity to focus on what is needed for incremental innovation.

·    Engagement + Individualism: Allow opportunities for
individuals to come together a s a group and brainstorm, while respecting the
individual time needed to work ideas through to applications.

·    Flexibility + Stability: Provide flexibility for
people to explore different solution options and breakthrough ideas, but also
provide a solid system for practical implementation.

Successfully navigating these
innovation paradoxes should enable you to create a sustainable innovation
culture – no matter what the challenges ahead!


Gaia Grant and Andrew Grant are the authors of TheInnovation Race: How to Change a Culture to Change the Game. As the
Directors of Tirian International Consultancy
they help to create innovation cultures for a range of international
organisations (from Fortune 500 companies through to NFPs). The Grants are
top-ranking keynote speakers and business facilitators, and Gaia is an HD
researcher and guest lecturer at Sydney University Business School.