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Ambidextrous Innovation

By Michael S. Slocum


The Roman god Janus
Two faces and two sets of eyes-one set focused on preservation and the other on evolution

ambidextrous: from Latin ambi- + dexter
1 : using both hands with equal ease
2 : unusually skillful : VERSATILE
– Merriam-Webster

“The Ambidextrous Organization” describes how mature companies can pursue breakthrough growth through a two-pronged effort in which they separate their new, exploratory units from their traditional, exploitive ones while maintaining tight links across units at the senior executive level.”
– Michael L. Tushman

Ambidextrous Organizations are adept at balancing priorities.1 They are adept at separating their operations to support activities that protect current market strategies alongside operations necessary to create new opportunities. They are able to reposition resources in order to respond to the rapidly evolving consumer market. They are able to respond to increasing competitive pressures with ever quickening response times. They are able to survive the difficulties modern businesses find themselves in. How then does innovation factor into this?

Preserve and Evolve
The preservation of your existing business strengths provides a stable platform and the resources necessary to become something new.

The preservation of a business describes those activities associated with maintaining business strength as it relates to your current market position. Preservation is maintaining market share, profitability and brand recognition. It is the focus of the organization concerning maximizing the net profitability period associated with a given product or service (or a portfolio of products and services). Preservation is continuously improving the quality of your products or services. Preservation is incremental improvements to your portfolio. Improvements like additional functions delivered to the consumer, or better performance of the existing functions. Preservation is the development of all those derivative products that generate contrived dynamic prosperity (CDP)2 around an otherwise mature idea. Business evolution is the set of activities focused on the development of new products or services. Taking the company to new areas and levels of performance. The development of discontinuous technologies. The ability to recreate itself by doing something new. Preservation guarantees today while evolution assures tomorrow. Therefore, the ambidextrous organization develops a skill-set that is able to shift between preservation and evolution as conditions dictate.

Traditional quality methodologies are typically listed as preservation aides. Process Management, Lean, Six Sigma, and Systematic Tactical Innovation lead the preservation charge. The focused application of these methods in support of a strategic plan is a fantastic formula for preservation. Evolutionary aides are Design for Six Sigma, and Systematic Strategic Innovation. Together these give the organization the ability to create that new product or service that will re-initiate the profitability curve an indefinite number of iterations. Therefore, unlike CDP which is a finite profitability extension, this cycle is potentially infinite in duration.

The organization must possess competency and some level of proficiency in each method presented in order to provide support for all required activities across the preservation and evolution spectra. Leadership competencies must exist as well in order to be able to control the bias between preservation and evolution. All of this allows the organization to be aligned for competitive excellence. Competitive excellence is leveraged by the application of Systematic Innovation.

Systematic Innovation: DMASI and DMAPI
Systematic Innovation is the synergistic integration of the art and science of creativity. It is the reduction of innovation to an exact science. It is the application of order to what was previously only chaotic process.

Systematic Innovation is an algorithmic approach to the development and application of ideation and problem solving methodologies. The core of Systematic Innovation is the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ).3 TRIZ provides the steps necessary for both tactical and strategic innovation and is based on the empirical decomposition of patents as well as a collection of validated heuristics. The meta-methodology for tactical innovation is DMASI. DMASI is a phase-based approach to innovation and stands for the following critical problem solving phases.

Tactical Innovation Roadmap: DMASI

(D)efine: define the problem, identify the ideal solution, identify the system resources
(M)odel: model the system using function modeling, MLP modeling, and substance-field analysis
(A)bstract: convert the specific problem to the abstract level
(S)olve: apply solution standards and generate potential solution concepts
(I)mplement: select concept(s) and develop implementation plan, solve secondary problems as required

The meta-methodology for strategic innovation is DMAPI. DMAPI is a phase-based approach to innovation and stands for the following critical ideation (concept generation) phases.

Strategic Innovation Roadmap: DMAPI

(D)efine: define the system under development, identify the ideal solution paths, identify the system resources, identify the technology roadmap
(M)ap: map the maturity of the system using descriptors-number of innovations vs. time, innovative level vs. time, profitability vs. time, and performance vs. time
(A)pply the Patterns of Evolution: convert the specific problem to the abstract level
(P)lan the Multi-generational Product Plan (MGPP): apply solution standards and generate potential solution concepts
(I)mplement the MGPP: select concept(s) and develop implementation plan, solve secondary problems as required

The application of DMASI and DMAPI provide innovative method on par with the capability provided by DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, implement, and control) and DMADV (define, measure, analyze, design, validate, or IDOV). This puts innovation systematization on par with that found in the quality arena. This evolves innovation along that s-curve I have previously described as the Third Wave.4

We have described the ambidextrous organization and both tactical and strategic systematic innovation. Now let’s discuss Ambidextrous Innovation.

Ambidextrous Innovation
Systematic problem solving and ideation are coupled. The former helps fund the latter. The former is also inextricably linked to the latter.

Ambidextrous Innovation is the practice and application of DMASI to preservation activities while applying DMAPI to evolution activities. It is necessary for both to be present. For example, tactical innovation takes place within strategic innovation on a continual basis. The application of strategic innovation also causes the need for tactical innovation to be renewed continually. This system adds the concept of continuous innovation to that of continuous improvement. In order for an organization to demonstrate this ambidextrous application of innovation, both competencies must be present. This means the organization needs an aggressive proficiency program that is developing maturation in these methods. This is Ambidextrous Innovation.

Focusing on problem solving in the systems that exist and are generating profits allows for the continuous improvement of those systems as well as the continuous addition of features and functions. This helps to maximize the net profitability period for the product or service and provides a stable platform for the generation of the next big thing. This is the laboratory where strategic innovation is practiced. Strategic innovation provides the concept generation capability needed to generate a concept that does not necessarily lie on the existing s-curve – but could initiate an s-curve of its own. The opportunity to do something different. Peter Drucker said that the best way to go out of business is to put yourself out of it. Ambidextrous Innovation is the approach that provides the required logistics to do just that.

“The man who cannot occasionally imagine events and conditions of existence that are contrary to the causal principle as he knows it will never enrich his science by the addition of a new idea.”
– Max Planck

Ambidextrous Innovation is the lightning rod of competitive excellence. It is the concept that drives evolution and the optimization of the normal. It drives product and service performance to the ideal state. It identifies the required educational model for the development of innovation competencies. It also provides a strategic framework to describe the organization’s commitment to innovation. It would be prudent to measure the performance of innovation programs across both the preservationary and evolutionary domains. Also, measure various key characteristics within each domain. Thereby, the organization may predictable drive innovation performance just as productivity and quality have been for the past five decades. As Planck alluded to above, things need to change sometimes. If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you will continue to get what you’ve always gotten. A single sided approach to innovation will only prolong an inevitable demise. Continued success is based on the predictable and repeatable cycle of concept to commercialization. This will happen reliably only when aided by an ambidextrous approach to innovation.

[1] “Ambidextrous Organization,” April 2004, Harvard Business Review, O’Reilly and Tushman.

[2] Contrived Dynamic Prosperity (CDP) occurs when a mature product or service maintains net profitability despite indicators demonstrating that it shouldn’t. It is good news for an organization but certainly nothing to hang your organizational futures hat on. CDP can usually be achieved, at least temporarily, by applying a novel marketing approach or re-branding exercise. Sterno does this every couple of years with its line of ethanol/methanol gels.

[3] TRIZ: The Right Solution at the Right Time, Insytec, 1999, Dr. Yuri Salamatov, edited by Drs. Slocum, and Souchkov. You can also explore the world of TRIZ at The TRIZ Journal.

[4] INsourcing Innovation, Breakthrough Performance Press, 2005, Dr. Michael S. Slocum, Mr. Neil Decarlo and Mr. David Silverstein.

About the Author:
Michael S. Slocum, Ph.D., is the principal and chief executive officer of The Inventioneering Company. Contact Michael S. Slocum at michael (at) or visit