Think of your most successful program or service — the thing that your organization is known for, and that others try to emulate. As a leader, you should concentrate your attention on continuing to refine a proven program, build on a successful effort, and expand your market share… right? It would be crazy to move in an entirely different direction, or explore a new approach that could render your current success obsolete… wouldn’t it?
Well… yes and no. Yes, it is a leader’s job to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of their organization’s current offerings. AND, it is also a leader’s job to make sure the organization is exploring options that could totally disrupt business as usual, because if you don’t do it someone else will. Charles A. O’Reilly III and Michael A. Tushman refer to this as being an ambidextrous organization — one that can simultaneously exploit the present and explore the future.
That sounds good in theory, but it can be really hard to implement in practice. Why?
- We are measured on the outcomes we achieve today. Improving upon and expanding what you already know works is what provides outcomes today. And the more successful you are, the more you are rewarded for doing what you already do well, the harder it is to convince ourselves we should try to disrupt that success.
- Exploring new opportunities is inefficient. Exploring involves trying, failing, adapting, trying again with no guarantees of success. It takes time and resources — presumably time and resources that you have decided to divert away from something that you know works, and on which you are being measured.
- It requires an entirely different structure and mindset. It is very difficult to persuade people who are rewarded for behaving in one way (following specific processes and procedures) to shift gears and behave in an entirely different way.
- The needs of today “squeak” much louder than the potential of tomorrow. Even if you have periodic discussions about emerging trends and possible future scenarios, they are often cut short by the urgency of what is right in front of you.
In spite of the challenges, there are steps that you as the leader can take to help your organization be more ambidextrous. Identify a small group of people for your exploration team that is separate from the employees focused on the here and now. Allow that team to operate outside the systems and processes that were designed for todays programs. John Kotter refers to this as a dual operating system, and it allows people to focus on either the programs of today of the potential for tomorrow. And then you, as the leader, have to hold these competing priorities and manage the inevitable tension between the two.
Sure there are days where you have to make tough choices between current needs and potential opportunities. Managing that balance is what it takes to lead… today AND tomorrow.