What it Means to be An Ambidextrous Innovation Leader

Innovation is a code word for leadership. Yet innovation is not business as usual; it requires a different mindset: a growth mindset. You have to be comfortable with ambiguity, putting yourself and your organization un uncomfortable positions, having a point of view and pursuing it with conviction.

The innovation equation

As a leader, innovation happens when you manage for today and lead for the future; known as ambidexterity. Simplified to an equation it looks like this:

Reducing errors + increasing insight = innovation

You exploit your current business model while also exploring what’s next; trying to find the revolution before it finds you. There are only a handful organizations who have been able to reinvent themselves, some survive because they’re spurred to action by a crisis.

It’s rare to find leaders who are able to manage and lead at the same time. Most settle, get comfortable and simply manage to maintain the status-quo. The real leadership challenge is acting with a sense of urgency when the business is stable, not just when a crisis hits!

For academics it’s an interesting topic to study and understand how to help leaders overcome these challenges. There are people who are studying innovation leaders in action to find out what traits innovation leaders have that helps them achieve ambidexterity. Earlier this year I was invited to participate in a Innovation Leadership study that aimed to find out what those traits are.

According to the study, ambidextrous innovation leaders have a unique profile. From the whitepaper:

Innovation Leaders show a strong Exploration orientation, along with a strong orientation to both the Independence and Collaboration orientations. They had a higher means on this polar dimension than all other groups studied. The strong Exploration orientation indicates that there is a foundation for generating novel creative ideas in collaboration with others, but the strong Independent streak would also enable the drive to push innovation projects through to implementation. This result supports the assertion that leading innovation requires greater ambidexterity.

What does “exploration” mean? The ambidextrous model looks like this:

innovation path model

What separates innovators from others is perpetual curiosity, a bias for action and a propensity for exploration; it’s in their DNA. Innovative leaders understand that there is no innovation without experimentation, but they’re smart about it, knowing that failure is inseparable from invention.

A very popular model for ambidexterity, made famous by Google, is dividing your efforts and priorities in 70/20/10; you focus 70% on the core business (sustaining), 20% on extending that core (exploiting) and 10% on exploring the new (exploration).

When leaders focus all their efforts on maintaining the status quo, they play not to lose. To play to win means managing the tension of focusing on the now while creating the new. Leadership and priorities are a critical measure of innovation. Put simply: you aren’t leading for the future if your priorities are just to maintain the status quo.