Interview with Jens Maier

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The Ambidextrous Organization
Exploring the New While Exploiting the Now

Interview with Jens Maier, Senior Research Fellow & Lecturer at Universität St. Gallen & Founder of CE Convergence Engineers on his new book “The Ambidextrous Organisation”

Dear Jens, many thanks for taking the time to tell us about your new book, The Ambidextrous Organisation, which has just come out. You have been in the field of innovation for some time, what has motivated you to write this book just now? What was the trigger?

In my executive leadership classes on innovation I worked with one particular client in 30 workshops in London, New York, Singapore, Hong Kong and Zurich. The innovation landscapes executives identified for their industry looked almost identical: a lot of innovation activities around products and processes, a lot less in areas such as networking, customer experience and payment models. This means missing out on rich potential for innovation. Of course, in going forward, the company should by no means stop innovating around existing products and processes, basically exploiting previous investments, existing customer intimacy and technical know-how. However, to purposefully take advantage of the under-utilised types of innovation as a source for true differentiation some more exploration would be required! While the notion of a need for both ‘exploration and exploitation’, to be ambidextrous, was introduced by James G. March in 1991, some 25 years later both organisations and individual leaders are still wrestling with the challenges of creating truly ambidextrous organisations. My new book is written with the aim to support the creation of ambidextrous organisations through the development of ambidextrous leaders.

We have been talking a lot about the importance of innovation, and for a long time. Survey after survey indicates that it remains top priority for CEOs, yet at the same time satisfaction rates with innovation performance do not seem to increase very much! Why do you think that is – I have the feeling your books is picking up on this dilemma, and suggests a way forward?

Yes, indeed the frustrations are there and are understandable: CEOs challenge their organisations to explore while continuing to use the same processes that work so well for exploitation – and are then surprised that they get more of the same: exploitation of existing products and processes.

In their frustration they often go for a structural solution and set up a new unit, often reporting directly to the CEO, that is set up as far away from existing R&D units as possible. The result after 2-3 years tends to be: interesting output is generated from such exploration only to be rejected by the rest of the organisation. This causes of course more frustration on part of the CEO, and eventually the closure of the new unit.

What is the alternative? To apply the contextual solution! This is to develop ambidextrous leaders inside the organisation who are able to apply the appropriate processes and tools to innovation depending on whether exploitation or exploration is required. This approach is time consuming at first. However, it helps to build the backbone for the ambidextrous organisation, an organisation that has truly embraced innovation as an organisational capability.

You make sound becoming ambidextrous sound quite easy! Yet how many of us are truly ambidextrous by nature, ie doing equally well with our right and our left hand. While we can improve our “weak” hand, will there not always be a tendency to fall back onto our “strong” hand, particularly in challenging situations? What I mean is, as individuals we have strong preferences around risk, ambiguity and uncertainty and I believe that these drive our preferences for either exploitation or exploration. Is that really easy to change? How can executives – indeed all of us – become more comfortable to get out of our comfort zone?

Indeed, adaptability is key. This does not only apply to species as introduced by Darwin, but also to organisations, and to leaders. While the leadership literature is finding it challenging to identify why leaders succeed – it depends – the findings are much clearer on why leaders fail: Lack of adaptability is one of the most important factors behind leadership failure. As individuals we have our ‘preference for behaviour’, our ‘dominant hand’. This ‘preference for behaviour’ can be labelled as ‘personality’. For example, personality tests such as Myers Briggs or the ‘big five’ identify personal preference. One of the four dimensions elicited through the Myers Briggs is our preference when interacting with others: is the focus outwardly and do we gain energy from others, is the focus inwardly, and we gain energy from cognition? Adaptability implies that you understand both what your own personal preference is, and what a particular situation might require. For example, a score of 90 out of 100 on extraversion will indicate that your preference is for extroverted behaviour, which is often associated with assertiveness. This may be the equivalent of your dominant hand. While extroverted behaviour may get you a long way in many situations, in the context of an exploration project in which you may have to influence a number of different stakeholders such dominant hand may get in the way. In order to succeed in such a context you may have to use your other hand and therefore have to display a more introverted behaviour, including listening skills. Adaptability is key:training your ‘other’ hand, thus broadening and developing the “bandwidth” of your preferred behaviour. A simple example is, try writing your name with your non-dominant hand; while it might be illegible at first, with practice it will become better!

I find it really interesting how the importance of awareness and mindfulness is gaining recognition in the world of business. Indeed it has had its debut at Davos as recently as 2013. To me it is an indication that we are starting to take a more holistic approach in business: adding intuition, introspective, self-awareness to the traditional focus on the rational and analysis.

If you should condense your book into one or two key messages, what would they be?

We know that Ambidextrous Organisations outperform their competitors. Hence my advice is for leaders to go on the journey towards Ambidexterity so that they can simultaneously innovate through exploitation and exploration. I am convinced that both organisations and individuals have it in them to develop the bandwidth required to be ambidextrous.

Dear Jens, many thanks indeed. For those of you interested in purchasing the book, we are delighted to be able to offer a discount of 30% for purchases via the publisher’s website. Please use PM15THIRTY at checkout.

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