Ambidextrous Innovation

23 May

Innovating for breakthroughs is not the same as innovating for smaller gains. That is the conclusion of several experts who were cited by Ralph-Christian Ohr in a recent article.

The biggest difference is the level of certainty. Incremental innovation is a familiar, routine process. Manufacturers can predict with confidence that a new model of their product will be ready for launch on or about a certain date. Service providers know that changes and improvements in their marketing and delivery systems will occur regularly. These changes often result in more sales and profits, but not much more.

There is much less certainty in breakthrough innovation. An open-minded leader can assign an innovation team to “invent something,” specifying only the desired outcome and not the device that will achieve the goal. In such a case, there is no way to know or predict the result of the innovation project.

Such uncertainty is uncomfortable to most managers because it involves risk. Manpower and money must be invested with no assurance of a return. However, as the old saying goes, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

To run projects with high risk/reward ratios in a company whose prime directive is to save every rupee, it is advisable to create a separate process, structure and team. The breakthrough innovation process is likely to be too unfamiliar, uncomfortable and even threatening for traditional managers and employees.

A wise promoter or senior business leader understands that innovation should be ambidextrous. On one hand, much effort should be devoted to incremental gains through traditional methods. But the other hand, devoted to high risk/reward projects and long-term investments, must not be ignored. To those who are willing to accept the discomfort and risk of the breakthrough innovation process, the rewards can be exceptional.

Related reading: The Case for Dual Innovation


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