Ambidexterity is a Necessary Innovation Skill
There’s an old joke about a not-too-swift basketball player describing his skills. He told a reporter “I can shoot with my left hand, I can shoot with my right hand. I’m amphibious.” Well, perhaps he is both amphibious and ambidextrous. But what we need now in order for innovation to flourish are managers and workers who are ambidextrous.
By ambidextrous I mean that they can work on two different tasks or capabilities relatively simultaneously, that require very different skills and perspectives. Over the last decade managers and front line workers have been singularly focused on efficiency and effectiveness. It has been paramount to chase out variability and waste, to outsource and down-size, and implement Six Sigma and Lean practices. As firms faced tough markets, the mantra of “doing more with less” wasn’t a one time event, but a continuous chorus. Thus, we now have managers who are very, very good at rooting out extraneous costs and implementing efficiency and effectiveness, just when the demands and markets will shift and place a far greater emphasis on innovation. Rather than ambidextrous managers and employees, we have the equivalent of the fiddler crab, which has one massive claw and one very small, weak claw. And now, after years of focusing on effectiveness and efficiency, building strength in the one hand at the expense of building skills and capabilities for innovation, we are left with a managerial class who have one predominant perspective, one predominant set of skills and virtually no aptitude or appetite for what’s going to be important next: innovation.
What to do? If your organization has a lot of “fiddler crabs” – that is, people with skills overweighted toward efficiency and effectiveness, you need to focus on the three “Rs” – recruiting, retraining and rewarding.
Most managers identify and recruit people with similar skills, background and temperaments. That means that your “fiddler crabs”, people who have a deep focus in efficiency and effectiveness, are recruiting other people with very similar skills. This is doubling down at a time when we need to balance the skills in the organization. Most businesses need to recruit more people based on their insights, creativity and passion, to begin to bring more innovation aptitude and skill into the organization. Start hiring people who have a slightly different perspective, who can bring new ideas and new techniques into the organization. Think more about user design and experience.
Most organizations I work with have more black belts than a karate dojo on a busy night. These black belts have excellent skill employing Six Sigma, Lean, Statistical Control and a number of other efficiency and effectiveness programs. They understand how to spot waste and variability and eliminate it. What they lack are the skills to innovate. Few if any understand and regularly capture trends or build scenario plans. Most have never participated in customer interactions meant to spot new needs. And let’s not even start with idea generation, the famous whipping boy “brainstorming”, or a host of other techniques. Could your organization provide even a tenth of the funding it provides for Six Sigma and Lean to innovation? Could we create a few innovation “black belts” among the staff?
I read on Twitter that Jack Welch now says that the only thing that will save US businesses is innovation. Funny, he never seemed that interested as CEO. What I do recall Jack Welch saying that is pertinent here is “show me a salesman’s timecard and I’ll tell you how he is compensated”. What Welch meant is that compensation dictates focus. We naturally do what we are best compensated to do. Most organizations today don’t evaluate their managers and workers on innovation, and therefore these folks aren’t compensated for those efforts. However, everyone is compensated on reducing costs and gaining efficiency. We need to refocus compensation, and it’s close cousin evaluation, on innovation.
What will be very important in the near future are managers and line workers who are good at two important but very different skills: helping the organization work efficiently and effectively while simultaneously developing and implementing new ideas that drive differentiation and growth. It’s no longer enough to have an “either/or” mentality, since that leads to strength on one hand and weakness on the other. No, we need balance – ambidexterity in our workers, capable of achieving short term quarterly financial objectives and developing important long range ideas.
Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.
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