Now that you’ve learned 224 ways to generate ideas, there’s nothing standing in the way of your being an innovative organization, right? You’re creative, you’re disruptive, you’re ready to focus all of your attention on developing something new. Can you be an innovative organization now?

Not so fast.

Like it or not, whatever innovative ideas you have on your plate, your existing products are your bread and butter. While the innovative products may make you rich in the future, the bread and butter products are paying your salary right now, and chances are, you can’t just fling them aside wholesale. You need to keep those going at the same time you’re being a wild and crazy innovative guy or gal.

What you need to be, explains some management experts, is “ambidextrous,” or able to develop the new and innovative products at the same time that you’re continuing to develop the reliable, existing products.

The term “ambidextrous organization” first appeared in  a 1996 California Management Review article by Michael L. Tushman and Charles A. O’Reilly III, who later expanded on their idea in Harvard Business Review in 2004. (It is well known that it takes eight years for an idea to cross the country, especially if it starts in the West.) “This mental balancing act can be one of the toughest of all managerial challenges — it requires executives to explore new opportunities even as they work diligently to exploit existing capabilities — and it’s no surprise that few companies do it well,” they write.

The paper goes on to describe how to do that. Basically, organizations need to have separate product development teams. However, there needs to be a single manager of both innovative and traditional products, and the innovative team stays part of the primary organization – instead of being spun out into a skunkworks, for example — to be able to leverage corporate resources. Or, as described by management consulting firm Create Advantage:

  • Separate the efforts. Don't expect people running mature businesses to behave the same as those in charge of startups. Each type has its own incentives, organizations, and talent needs.
  • Appoint an ambidextrous senior manager to oversee both efforts. A general manager with responsibility for both traditional and new businesses will foster efficiency by sharing such resources as HR, marketing, and finance, and by promoting integration of the initiatives when the time is right.
  • Support both teams appropriately. Don't shortchange one over the other.

“The tight coordination at the managerial level enables the fledgling units to share important resources from the traditional units — cash, talent, expertise, customers, and so on — but the organizational separation ensures that the new units’ distinctive processes, structures, and cultures are not overwhelmed by the forces of ‘business as usual,’” Tushman and O’Reilly write. “At the same time, the established units are shielded from the distractions of launching new businesses; they can continue to focus all their attention and energy on refining their operations, improving their products, and serving their customers.”

And that’s great, except it means some developers are assigned to the new, shiny, innovative product, while others are relegated to the reliable, staid, existing product, which can be demoralizing. (Then again, Assembly and COBOL programmers need jobs, too.)  

“If you’re an engineer working on your company’s bread and butter there’s probably a time when you’ve been frustrated with the company’s shiny objects,” writes Steven Sinofsky, a Microsoft executive who is now “Executive in Residence” at Harvard Business School. “When things are going well, the folks working on those look like they are creating the future. When things are not going well, you might think the company is squandering resources.” (One might expect that Microsoft has a fair amount of experience in dealing with this issue.)

Sinofsky’s piece is intended to provide ideas to help keep the juices flowing for the developers assigned to the existing products. His examples include using competitors’ products to become familiar with the challengers, taking classes and other training on new technologies outside the product, and so on – in other words, continue learning and growing on your own and don’t get trapped in the old technologies.

It’s interesting to observe that, while there seems to be a new article or book on innovation every other week, eight and ten years go by between similar efforts for ambidextrous organizations (a new book is due out next year). Perhaps this is symbolic of the problem.

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