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Harvard Assumptions Shattered

Welcome back Humantific readers. Writing books while operating a busy SenseMaking for ChangeMaking consulting practice presents expected and unexpected challenges, as well as opportunities to reexamine various subjects related to what we do, working with organizations in the real world. When it comes to writing, there always seems to be a feeling that we are far behind and have not written enough, but as practitioners and authors of two previous books we understand that comes with the territory.

Sometimes unexpected historical findings pop-up in writing, details not noticed in literature earlier, that might prove to be useful. At other times new findings are tabled as the subjects evolve and we rethink how best to explain how we do what we do.

For us those subjects include organizational sensemaking, changemaking, ambidexterity, thinking/cognitive styles, innovation enabling, complex problem solving, team dynamics, psychological safety, navigating complexity, design for complexity, complex facilitation and inclusive culture building.

In this mini-series, being created during the writing of our next book, we are sharing a few things that we are discovering along the way, even if they are not all yet fully resolved.

Inspired by the remembered title of one of my favorite books by American short story author Raymond Carver; “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” I considered calling this series What We Talk About When We Talk About Ambidexterity or What We Talk About When We Talk about Behaviors, or even What We Talk About When We Talk about SenseMaking.

These are among the terms at the center of considerable confusion in the marketplace today.

In this little series we will touch on a few terms and discoveries as we formulate our upcoming book.

Sharing Discovery #1: Two Ambidexterities

Since we have been teaching Ambidex to organizational leaders in our skill building program for more than a decade I took the time earlier this pandemicky summer to undertake a quick informal check-in survey across 25 active YouTube videos on the subject of Ambidexterity, some showing workshops, podcasts and or lectures.

What I found was that 95% of them are focused on what the popular Harvard/Stanford based authors, Charles O’Reilly and Michael Tushman refer to as Structural Ambidexterity, following and building on the earlier 1991 logic of James G. March (1928-2018) which builds on Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) and others.

To be brief: Structural Ambidexterity, with its two dimensions described as “Exploration” and “Exploitation” has its roots in so-called behavioral economics, business management, decision theory, decision support. Structural Ambidex is about managing structures, sometimes referred to as organizational architectures. In its most recent forms it signals a somewhat late arriving awareness in the graduate business schools that they better adjust their traditional trajectory to offer up some focus in the direction of innovation. Structural Ambidexterity is basically a graduate business/management school interpretation of how to enact innovation effectively in organizations.

Structural Ambidexterity

Structural Ambidex manifests itself, in terms of advice, as what we call The Structural Separation Manifesto. From its early days it has been suggesting that the two central dynamics of Ambidex: Exploration and Exploitation are two different universes that need to be separated and considered separate entities inside organizations.

Structural Ambidex depicts the two dynamics as 180 degrees opposite to each other and often stated is that if a company is good at one they are terrible at the other. Structural Ambidexterity suggests the two worlds are “inconsistent and paradoxical” thus in need of separation.

The separation orientation remains central to the O’Reilly and Tushman influenced Structural Ambidexterity taught at Harvard, Stanford Business Schools and adopted elsewhere into various practices, and ultimately on-boarded into many organizations.

What We Noticed

From a strategic innovation practice perspective, to be brief: what we noticed inside O’Reilly and Tushman's Structural Ambidex is the presence of rather superficial innovation process knowledge, an absence of cognitive diversity knowledge, absence of team dynamics knowledge and absence of culture building knowledge which may account, in part, for its focus on separation rather than integration. As taught in the business management graduate schools Structural Ambidex is about managing, not enabling innovation. Structural Ambidex does not seem to recognize or know what to do with, the human-centered connective opportunities sitting in organizations in plain sight.

Somewhat oddly for us, the Structural Separation Manifesto observable in most YouTube videos on the subject of Ambidex is tilted in the opposite direction to what we have been teaching in our Complexity Navigation Program for more than a decade.

Behavioral Ambidexterity

Our summer survey reminded us that what we do in Humantific practice and what we teach in Humantific Academy might best be described as Behavioral Ambidexterity, which has deep historical roots in complex problem solving, inclusive applied creativity, strategic design and behavioral innovation dynamics. The focus of Behavioral Ambidexterity is delivering on the promise of ambidexterity as a clear embodiment of a duality of stated strategic ambitions. We do that by humanizing ambidexterity and actually operationalizing it in complex organizational contexts.

Behavioral Ambidexterity brings knowledge of how corporate strategy connects to innovation strategy and to human behaviors, deep knowledge of adaptive innovation process, maximizing brainpower, integration of sensemaking into innovation, systemic challenge framing, cognitive inclusion, cognitive bias awareness, team dynamics, psychological safety and inclusive culture building. At its core is the ability to make sense of and tackle complex fuzzy challenges being encountered everyday by many organizations.

Behavioral Ambidexterity brings an adaptive human-centered enabling system. We don’t think of that knowledge as enabling “constraints” as much as enabling dynamics. In the context of complex organizations, leaders build skill in leading the practical enabling dynamics, synchronized with stated strategic intentions, often already present. The intentions are present but often not the skills and behaviors, not the enabling dynamics. Knowledge of these enabling dynamics is not present in Structural Ambidexterity.

In Behavioral Ambidexterity we recognize that when it comes to particapatory innovation and cocreation in the workplace, the arriving generations are not inclined to embrace many of the old school table-top power dynamics, sometimes referred to as shadow dynamics, tolerated for decades by the boomers.

Behavioral Ambidexterity acknowledges often present, hidden in plain sight, shadow dynamics, which most often today in business organizations are tilted, some might say heavily weighted towards privileging convergent thinking (decision making) as the highest form of value in direct contradiction to stated innovation and changemaking goals.

Via building transparent innovation dynamics awareness Behavioral Ambidexterity brings shadow dynamics into the light. Once made visible that shadow cannot be unseen.

In Behavioral Ambidexterity we link psychological safety, not just to adaptability building and maximizing brainpower but to valuable folks not walking out the door. No such dynamics are present in Structural Ambidexterity.

In Behavioral Ambidexterity the organizational architectures are secondary to skill-building and are self-created by folks who have acquired the practical enabling dynamics skills. Each division might in an organization might have a different take on Exploration/Exploitation emphasis. Thats for leadership to formulate. Humantific’s Ambidex Continuum Framework makes such conversations among organizational leaders multi-dimensional and robust.

From our humble practice perspective we view Structural Ambidexterity on its own as roughly equivalent to rearranging deck chairs. We know from experience that without the skill-building part nothing much is going to change in the organization. We recognize that adaptive skill-building, not shuffling architectures remains the heavy lift.

Evolving Awareness Arrives:

Having said all of that we certainly took note of a recent, rather brave Harvard Business School working paper entitled: The Evolutionary Nature of Breakthrough Innovation: Re-Evaluating the Exploration vs. Exploitation Dichotomy, 2020 by D. Sarnecka and G. Pisano.

In that paper are several sticks of dynamite thrown in the direction of Structural Ambidexterity.

Heavily weighted towards explaining the impressive data-driven details of the underlying research that working paper never-the-less lands numerous solid punches directly on the chin of Structural Ambidexterity, particularly in its introductory pages and in its findings. It is an important moment in the subject of Ambidexterity, not to be missed.

Below for our Humantific readers, we have cut and pasted what we considered to be 5 highlights from the Harvard paper as follows:

1. “Our findings differ from those O’Reilly and Tushman’s concept of “ambidexterity”. In O’Reilly and Tushman’s [Structural Ambidexterity] framework, firms need to have exploration capabilities for breakthrough innovation and exploitation capabilities to pursue routine innovations. Our findings suggest that such ambidexterity is also critical just for breakthrough innovations alone. A major practical challenge—as highlighted in literature as far back as March’s seminal work —is that exploration and exploitation require fundamentally different organizational structures, processes, and cultures (1991). “

2. “Our longitudinal analysis suggests that while corporate innovation is an evolutionary process, it unfolds in distinct ways for breakthrough innovations, and this process is differently than previously described in the [Structural Ambidexterity] literature.”

3. “Our results should make one suspicious of the usual advice to put exploration and exploitation related innovative efforts in different organizational units. To the extent breakthroughs require both, then understanding how these seemingly contradictory capabilities can be integrated looks to be an organizational challenge well worth understanding in future research.”

4. “In the initial phases of the breakthrough process, firms explore unfamiliar territory. This initially unfamiliar territory becomes a focal point for subsequent search and exploitation. Over time, through a process of cumulative search, a once “unfamiliar” territory (discovered through exploration) becomes familiar. Breakthroughs ultimately emerge from the exploitation of this now- familiar body of knowledge.”

5. “Our research is not without limitations. Patents, the basic inputs of our analysis, have well known limits as marker of firms’ innovative activity…We hope our analysis and methods will pave the way for future work on this topic.”

Step back for a moment and breathe that in. For many there are numerous big evolving wows seen there coming into view.

Getting There / Not Quite

From a Humantific practice perspective the Harvard paper gets the structural separation problem but falls short of grasping the methods related notion that there is a “Exploration” on the front end of every problem solving or innovation process cycle.

The paper misses the methods related opportunity of common language spanning Explore and Exploit. There is a falling short on the cognitive realization that Ambidexterity does not represent rare alien dynamics but rather our human collective us.

These are all aspects already present and operational in the current practice community, not a future vision. That might be confusing to some readers of the Harvard paper that seems to have limited view into practice.

In closing we did appreciate that the Harvard Evolutionary Nature paper does point out that its approach of measuring patents seldom tells the complete story of innovation inside organizations.

The ambitious paper misses the opportunity to point out that much sensemaking, problem solving, changemaking value can be added inside organizations that does not cascade into patent inventories.

In practice we know this to be everyday innovation being applied to everyday complexity, not confined to products. Again this is knowledge that is already present in the practice community and not a future vision.

Clearly the implications of the Harvard paper are considerable and for many organizational leaders worth reflecting upon.

Overall we say Bravo! on this Evolutionary Nature of Breakthrough Innovation paper. We consider it to be a significant value-add to the Organizational Ambidexterity conversation and super welcome. Congrats to its courageous authors.

Brief Comparison Summary:

Structural Ambidexterity / O’Reilly & Tushman

  • Rooted in Business Management, Decision Theory.

  • Advancing structural separation.

  • Advocating organizational architectures.

  • Process lite begins with ideation.

  • Emphasis primarily assumes product ambitions and outcomes.

  • Taught via focus on case studies; Blockbuster, Kodak, Polaroid.

  • Key Words: Managing, Structuring.

Behavioral Ambidexterity / Humantific

  • Rooted in Innovation Dynamics, Enabling Dynamics.

  • Advancing deliberate inclusion.

  • Advocating adaptive innovation capacity building.

  • Process, complete adaptive innovation cycle.

  • Emphasis on upstream open challenge framing.

  • Taught via focus on experiential learning. Skills Progression Ladder, Levels 1,2,3.

  • Key words: Nurturing, Activating.

Hope this is helpful Humantific readers.

Stay tuned for Sharing Discovery #2: What is Behavior?

Good luck to all.


Note: Can Structural Ambidex and Behavioral Ambidex fit together? Perhaps in our new book we can write more about what needs to take place to get Structural Ambidexterity working in concert with Behavioral Ambidexterity in the face of VUCA.

Questions: kickitup (at) humantific (dot) com

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