How to Explore in the Core
Dividing your company into execution mode vs exploration mode, as recommended by the multi-named mythology of “ambidextrous organizations,” “dual operating systems,” or “dual innovation,” will prevent you from competing efficiently in the digital age. These are academic principles perpetuated by people who spend a lot of time in ivory towers.
The basic premise is that individuals cannot be ambidextrous, so the organization must be. Leaders can’t manage both certainty and uncertainty and point to Clayton Christensen’s “Innovator’s Dilemma” as the inexorable truth. Companies must be organized into two parts: an extremely large execution army, ostensibly focused on pure execution activities, and a small exploration team, focused on breakthrough innovation.
Exploration balanced with execution based on the amount of uncertainty means you are more likely to meet and exceed your objectives.
This “truth”, if it ever existed, explained a phenomenon for a particular time when technology was advancing at an unprecedented pace. The truth only applied to tech companies whose markets were directly impacted by the change. If you build hard drives, you better keep up or else. It’s amusing, if not sad, that the primary examples of the continuation of this theory are the multiple-decades-old Kodak and Blockbuster moments. Insert eyeroll here.
Can we stop, please? The vast majority of companies will not invent anything new and, moreover, don’t need to. Most organizations need to compete in their existing markets, while looking for opportunities to expand, if endless growth is desired.
Digital Transformation is an interesting example. Digital transformation is mostly concerned with the digitization or digital updates of existing products, as well as, hopefully, a company’s internal systems. That this is a rather recent activity, despite the need being rather obvious for at least 25 years, is a testament to the failure of “ambidextrous organizations.”
What has your innovation team been up to if not digital transformation? Why is this now a separate effort, digitizing core business products and processes. Aren’t they in execution-only mode?
As with the overused term “innovation,” many corporations fall into the trap of believing that digital transformation is mostly a technology issue. They are eager to build, ignoring the lean innovation lessons of human-centered design, solution assumption busting, and market-based evidence that cuts through biases.
Exploration means learning, not debating. Your goal is not to argue your way to changing things, but rather to figure out what works.
No matter if you are working on core products, marketing, back office functions, human resources, financial administration, information technology, or supply chains — if you’re concerned with growth, emerging markets, employee retention, M&A, you face uncertainty in a disruptive world, and therefore must learn to “explore in the core.”
The biggest objection is, “We don’t have time.” What people are essentially saying is, “It’s better for me to push my people to execute wrongly versus taking the time to learn how to execute correctly.” With virtually any amount of uncertainty, exploration increases the efficiency of execution.
4 Simple Steps to Start Exploring in the Core
- Make the Time
Corporate calendars are often full of meetings, frequently poorly run and without real impact. One makes time for exploration by simply putting it on the calendar. All the execution activities that are supposedly more important than exploration will find your open space.
2. Define the Challenges
Brainstorm issues you and your teams are facing. What’s getting in the way of your success? What’s slowing you down? Which of your objectives is underperforming?
Brainstorm potential solutions without worrying about feasibility. What if we talked to customers? We need to realign with manufacturing. Maybe we need new messaging. What if we looked at the reasons behind customer churn?
Try to determine the challenges with the most uncertainty and highest potential impact if addressed.
3. Define the Activities
Exploration means learning, not debating. Your goal is not to argue your way to changing things, but rather to figure out what works. What’s needed is to interview customers (including internal), as well as other stakeholders. It’s the team’s responsibility to develop solution ideas. You don’t want to ask your customers for solutions.
For a particular idea, what must be true for it to work? Brainstorm all your assumptions. Design an experiment to test one of the most critical assumptions.
4. Align on a Decision
What did you learn through interviews and experiments? What does the evidence suggest you do next?
You are more likely to meet and exceed your objectives, if your exploration is balanced with execution based on the amount of uncertainty. Execute, pause, explore, resume. Executing harder through uncertainty doesn’t prevent you from crashing. It just hurts more.
Moves the Needle helps companies “explore in the core” in order to discover growth opportunities. If you’re interested in learning how to set up an explore in the core workshop, please email me email@example.com
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