Exploit and Explore


As a leader trying to maximize the impact of your organization, there are two important and seemingly opposing tasks you have to focus on: exploiting and exploring.

While sometimes cast with a negative connotation, the word exploit is actually defined as “make full use of and derive benefit from.” Are you doing this with your programs or services? Have you squeezed every ounce of value or benefit from your current efforts? What kinds of incremental change — tweaking if you will — could you and your team implement that would create additional efficiency/effectiveness/benefit? Not sure? Ask your people.

The potential for exploitation is often most easily seen by those closest to the product or service. Chances are your frontline staff could identify a host of small changes that could make a big difference. Exploitation is about maximizing systems and processes. It is internally focused and detail oriented. It may not be as flashy as exploration, but it is also less risky. It is the tortoise in the race with the hare . . . and we all recall who won that race.

Exploration on the other hand is externally focused. It is all about scanning the environment for new opportunities. It is about making novel connections and leaps in thinking — viewing the world with fresh eyes and seeing opportunities not previously considered. The trick with exploration is to have a clear vision or goal the organization is working toward. Otherwise, if the sky is the limit, interesting but unproductive distractions — rabbit trails — can easily pull you off course. Exploration can provide big wins. It can also drain resources for an idea with no guarantee of return.

How do you balance the tension between exploiting and exploring?

  1. Know which approach you skew toward as a leader, and surround yourself with people who provide a counterbalance. If you are a proud explorer, you need people who will focus on the details and ask the hard questions. Likewise, if you are a practical exploiter, find people you trust to stretch your comfort zones with new ideas.
  1. Give wings to your exploiters and roots to your explorers. At least initially, you will probably need to ask exploiters for their input, and give them permission to stretch the rules or change the systems. Provide your explorers parameters regarding testing little bets before investing in big ones.
  1. Know that it’s rarely 50/50 split. As a general rule, most organizations need more exploiters than explorers. Exploiters are about the strength of today. Explorers are about the potential of tomorrow. Once the explorers identify and test the next big thing, it is the exploiters who develop the systems and processes to take the idea to scale. Both play a critical role, but you need more exploiters.

Where are you and your organization at on the continuum? 

Exploit. Explore. Lead.   

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