I attended the Marketing Science Institute Meetings in Boston last week.
Two papers stood out:
Innovation Streams, Senior Teams and Ambidextrous Design by Michael Tushman (Harvard Business School)
Best Face Forward: Interface Systems and the New Frontier of Competitive Advantage by Jeffrey Rayport (Marketspace LLC)
A brief account of Tushman’s presentation:
Tushman distinguishes between two modalities in the life of the corporation:
1) The exploitative modality in which the corporation works the world it knows. This is a matter of extracting maximum advantage from the market as presently constituted. This is the traditional modality of the corporation, the very method of “business as usual. But it is now haunted by a new, tragic understanding: that what makes corporation successful also make it vulnerable to discontinuous technology. Success is now sometimes a tragic flaw.
2) The explorative modality in which the corporation prepares for the world it doesnt know and cant fully anticipate. This is the new modality of the corporation, the place it is obliged to give up some of its problem solving, quality controlling, administrative elegance. Here it is obliged to be messy, complicated, iterative, and wrong.
These two modality are mutually presupposing. If the corporation is only exploitative, it cannot survive sudden change. But if it is only explorative, it cannot manage its affairs, exploit opportunity, or “get down to business. The corporation must do both to make its way in the world.
The trouble is that these are effectively different cultures. They are driven by different assumptions and objectives. It is pretty hard to stuff them into the same organization, because they are often mutually mysterious and perpetually distrustful. In many cases, the explorative and the exploitative camps end up fighting one another, a contest between bean counting, risk-adverse bureaucrats on one side and reckless, restless, risk-crazy adventurers on the other. Or so they see one another, for these modalities are deeply contradictory.
What I like about Tushmans scheme is that it moves us two steps forward. In effect, it says to the exploitative people., “Look, you have just going to have build explorative modality in. Stop treating change as the unwelcome guest who must be asked to dinner periodically and then sent packing. These are not the odd men out. They are now the odd men in. Useful! Tushman formalizes something that have known for sometime: that change is a structural reality for the corporation and it must be embraced as such.
But hes ecumenical, this guy is. For Tushman now says to the explorative people, “You have to stop saying things like everything you know is wrong. Change is the only constant. The new rule is that there are no rules. There is no form upon the deep. Its all just chaos now. Having given them a secure place in the proceedings, Tushman now says to the explorative group, “shut up already. And enough with the scare mongering. [All these attributions to Tushman are purely my invention. I am merely trying to capture his argument in a vivid way. I have taken liberties in the process, for which all apologies!]
Tushman understands that the corporation can segregate the two modalities into separate functions and different personnel streams, but at some point these two violently contradictory modalities are going to have to co-exist in the same individual. Somewhere there has to be a senior player who understands them both, not as mutually exclusive impulses, but as exclusively mutual. The senior manager is going to have be powerfully, equally, and simultaneously explorative AND exploitative. Hence the notion of “ambidextrous design.
I have to tell you that at this point in the proceedings I could hear the earth move. Heres a professor at the Harvard Business School making the case for plenitude and transformation, not as a wild-eyed call for poetic refusal of bourgeois rigidities but because ambidexterity is good for business.
Hah! So much for the man in the gray flannel suit. Now this guy or gal must be capable of arguing X and not X. This is a Dostoyevskian enterprise that does not come easily to the average MBA, and this is true because there is not instruction in this matter at any business school. (No, not even Tushmans own.) But now we have an account of the corporation that says that the individual must possess and cultivate his or her own internal complexity to do their jobs.
I know a guy who works for corporate America who has tremendous range. Nick Hahn (Vivaldi Partners) can look at explorative and exploitative problems with perfect simultaneity. When you asked how he manages this, he says that it is a gift from the family. His father was an executive in the world of packaged goods and his mom was an artist. He was accustomed to skipping back and forth between the explorative and the exploitative often and at will
The question is, 1) “how do we build this into the corporate mind set? and 2) “what MBA program, or change in personnel, would solve this problem?
Ok, I will complete the second half of this blog tomorrow when I will describe the presentation of Jeffrey Rayport. Oh, and that reminds me. For those in the New York area, I will be talking at the Brand Identity Package Design conference at the Plaza hotel on Wednesday, the 20th. Im talking at 9:00. Just come in. If challenged, say you are, 1) “his brother, 2) “his sister, 3) his “voice coach, 4) “spiritual advisor,” 5) his “parole officer. Used individually, I think these will all work.