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In the new office, everyone needs to think as a founder

Exploration is discovering future business opportunities by predicting trends

For over two decades, the idea of the ambidextrous organization has influenced leaders across the world. The idea is simple. To do well over the long run, any organization has to be good at two very different tasks—exploitation and exploration. There is, however, a tension between the two. The skills and mindsets that support the two are different. So different that Charles A. O’Reilly III and Michael L. Tushman in their famous 2004 Harvard Business Review article, “The Ambidextrous Organization", recommended that it would be best if different parts of the organization focused on each.

The first of these, “exploitation", is easily translated to “business as usual" and is about becoming better at the business already working for you. It is about building a better brand and attracting more customers. This is the place where logic holds sway. The problems to be solved are amenable to logic, analysis, tools and processes. There are uncertainties but can be managed. The natural home ground of the MBA. The second, “exploration", is about discovering future business opportunities by predicting trends in popular culture, technology, geo-political realities and economics, and then building a response that can serve the best.

All this is a messy non-linear process. Part intuition, part science, and part pure economics. Traditionally, the playground of innovators and entrepreneurs.

Given how distinct the work, skills and mindsets are for these two tasks, different parts of organizations have focused on each. This was always an uneasy balance, but it worked, till now.

The pandemic has put an end to business as usual. So what does this mean for leaders from here on?

The answer is doing the difficult balancing act between exploration and exploitation. This balance, which once resided at the organizational level, has now moved to team and individual levels. It is not just organizations that need to balance the two tasks. Individual leaders will have to do it too.

A recent study by the Miami Herbert Business School on what differentiates organizations that have managed to stay “liquid" during the pandemic is the willingness of leaders across levels to shift their focus from exploitation to exploration. Not surprisingly, in the most responsive organizations, leaders are spending more than half of their time on the medium to long term futures.

With covid-19 and technology changing the rules of the game, today every leader needs a much stronger eye on the future.

This is, of course, a mixed blessing. The task of business leadership gets even more complex, as leaders are forced to shift their focus several times a day between business as usual and business for the future. They will need the logic of the MBA while dealing with logical and analytical problems, and they will need the logic of the entrepreneur while dealing with the future.

In the past, ambidexterity referred to the ability to use both one’s left and one’s right hand equally well. In the future ambidexterity will be about the mind. It will mean the ability to use the left brain focused acts of exploitation as well as the right brain focused acts of exploration. It is not just organizations which need to be ambidextrous. It is each of us.

Shalini Lal is the co-founder of Unqbe, a think tank and advisory firm focused on the future of work.

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