Innovation requires hands, heads, hearts
This idea isn't really new, but it does have some importance. The importance isn't about a duality between efficient operations and innovation capabilities, it's about doing more innovation, more regularly and more capably while sustaining the business as usual engines. There are several challenges the individuals promoting ambidexterity face, including the fact that for over 30 years organizations have built capabilities, cultures and reward systems narrowly defined around ever efficient operational processes, and have no history or experience building innovation capabilities and skills. In the past I've referred to this as the Fiddler Crab syndrome. If you know the Fiddler Crab you'll know that its one unique feature is that it has one enormous claw and one tiny claw. It is unbalanced, and one of the few animals in the wild deliberately so. Most modern corporations and the people within them are like Fiddler Crabs - evolved to have a lot of capability and focus in efficiency and short term productivity and no real capability around innovation. So when thinkers, innovations and academics expound on the idea of ambidexterity, they must acknowledge the yawning gap in capabilities between conducting efficient operations and executing innovation.
The skill gap alone is tremendous, but there's more to this concept than simply skills. The work of innovation is different than familiar day to day operations, requires different skills, operates on a completely different clock and requires more experimentation and divergence. It's not simply a matter of two different hands (ambidexterity) it's a matter of two heads. The contextual reality of innovation requires a completely different way of thinking than regular day to day operations. Rather than narrowing choices and making the most efficient decision, innovators must expand choices and scope, examine a range of options, discover new needs. The mental game is as compelling as the physical one. In my experience, many top notch people who have years of successful work experience managing known, familiar and repetitive processes simply cannot work in an innovation environment. The requirements and expansive scope are just too different for them to tolerate. They prefer the safety, reliability and conciseness of efficient operations.
Which points us to the difference in culture, or, as I've labeled it above, heart. Efficient operations will regularly encounter problems, which solutions like Six Sigma were invented to fix. By this I mean there are challenges in day to day operations, but those challenges require elbow grease and simple alternatives. People rarely lose heart or throw up their hands when working on an operational issue. Quite the opposite is true with innovation. To innovate you've got to be able to throw yourself into a not quite fully defined problem, with limitless possibilities, unusual and qualitative information and a wide array of choices. You will be confronted with a number of seemingly insurmountable obstacles with no easy solutions. You'll have to work with exceptionally limited budgets. The only people who succeed in innovation are those with passion for the problem or challenge, who put their whole heart into the solution. There is no middle ground; you are either part of the solution or you are part of the barriers, obstacles and negativity that rejects innovation.
All, or None
What individuals, teams and companies fail to realize is that this is a definitive exercise. You can't have some of the hands, and some of the heads, but no heart. Good innovation requires a deep commitment from all three. People with deep passion but no experience or skills aren't any more valuable than people with good insights but no passion. This has relevance to how you plan your innovation, how you build skills and experience, and most importantly how you build your teams. There must be passion on the team (the heart). There must be good thinking, expertise, willingness to explore (head) and there must be experience (the hands). They don't necessarily need to be the same people representing each skill, and it's tough to find anyone with deep skills at all three.
Ambidextrous, but so much more
So, those talking about ambidexterity are right, but missing some of the other key factors. We've got to balance the engagement and skills of both operational excellent and innovation, but we've also got to have the skills and experience, the willingness to explore and the passion to sustain when things get weird or tough. Solving for ambidexterity without considering these other factors won't create more innovation, but will create more frustration and cynicism.