What it Means to Be an Ambidextrous Innovation Leader

What it means to be an ambidextrous innovation leader

Developing greater agility for sustainability in a rapidly changing world

Authors: Gaia Grant, Martin Dowson, Eric Knight & Suresh Cuganesan

The followings are excerpts of the white paper What it means to be an ambidextrous innovation leader by Dr. Gaia Grant and Professors Martin Dowson, Eric Knight and Suresh Cuganesan highlighting some key findings in the paper. The findings are based on researches including 2 year-long case studies and interviews of 66 innovation leaders.

Innovation is required more than ever in order to survive.

Rapid change and complex contemporary environments require quick adaptive thinking. Yet ironically these complex environments can also lead to greater ambiguity and associated tensions, which make it difficult to innovate effectively.

It has become clear that leaders of the future will be required to develop ambidextrous responses to deal with complexity and rapid change at all levels. That is, they will need to know how to recognise and effectively navigate competing demands to stay ahead.

Innovation requires Paradoxical Innovation Orientations (PIOs)

Although innovation is typically seen as taking risks, pushing the boundaries and generating breakthrough new ideas, there is actually also an important flipside to this idea of innovation that is equally important. Innovation is also about having the focus to build on existing ideas and systems for incremental sustainable growth.

Research has revealed that there are two predominant polar orientations related to innovation, which we have identified in our research as Paradoxical Innovation Orientations (PIOs), and trying to balance these polar positions can readily lead to tension.

Organizations and their leaders will certainly need to explore new opportunities and rapidly develop original new products and services in order to remain competitive (an innovation orientation referred to as ‘Exploration’), yet at the same time they will need to utilise and gradually develop existing products and ensure sustainable systems and practices through incremental change (an innovation orientation referred to here as ‘Preservation’).

As an example, rapid globalisation and technological development has meant leaders need to continue to push the boundaries to avoid irrelevance or obsolescence due to disruptive innovation, yet they also need to be able to continue to ensure the organisation can perform reliably and sustainably. There needs to be synergy between the Exploration and Preservation orientations to fuel sustainable innovation and growth.

Innovation leaders are ambidextrous

Innovation leaders learn how to constantly balance the volatile dynamic between both elements simultaneously.

A typical response to paradoxical tensions such as these is the practice of ‘splitting’, which can include creating dual structures at the organizational level. For innovation leaders this practice involves a focus on either Exploration or Preservation as demonstrated by an operational focus on development or efficiency in organizations.

Splitting may help to minimise conflict by preventing interaction between the two orientations, but a more powerful process of dynamic equilibrium can be reached through synthesis.

An application of the paradox theory involves identifying tensions that create polarisation, recognising potential dynamics that could be reinforcing these tensions, and finding solutions that might help to deal with the tensions simultaneously.

An analysis of 66 interviews with innovation leaders from a range of different types of organizations revealed four paradox pairings comprising eight dimensions nested within the Exploration / Preservation orientations:

  1. Freedom & Control
  2. Openness & Focus
  3. Collaboration & Independence
  4. Flexibility & Stability

The dimensions that aligned with Exploration were Freedom, Openness, Collaboration and Flexibility. The dimensions that aligned with Preservation were Control, Focus, Independence and Stability.

Ambidextrous innovation leaders have a unique profile

The table below shows the dimensional profile of some different occupational groupings on each of the dimensions and on the PIOs as a whole. The results revealed that Innovation Leaders have a unique profile (as represented by the red bars in the graph below).

Innovation Leaders show a strong Exploration orientation (they reported higher means on Exploration overall as shown in the top section of the graph), along with a strong orientation to both the Independence and Collaboration orientations. They had a higher means on this polar dimension than all other groups studied.

The strong Exploration orientation indicates that there is a foundation for generating novel creative ideas in collaboration with others, but the strong Independent streak would also enable the drive to push innovation projects through to implementation. This result supports the assertion that leading innovation requires greater ambidexterity in balancing the tension between the PIOs overall, and between Independence & Collaboration in particular.

Models for building ambidextrous competence

a. The Higher Order Innovation Model

An interesting outcome was that Independence was found to function as a dimension of both the Preservation and Exploration orientations in the context of the overall innovation paradox (see the simplified Higher Order Innovation Model diagram below).

Previous studies have found that Exploration is important in innovation contexts, but a unique contribution of this research is that a dimension of the Preservation orientation also contributes to innovation. This demonstrates the importance of the often-unexplored flipside to innovation.

These results reveal how it is possible to develop both Exploration and Preservation orientations for ambidextrous leadership through focusing on developing both Independence and Collaboration, as well as by ensuring there is a focus on the development of the other dimensions of Exploration.

b. The Innovation Pathways Model

The dimensions within each orientation (Exploration and Preservation) were significantly positively correlated with each other, which indicates that the dimensions of each orientation are a good fit. This finding demonstrates that these dimensions appropriately represent the PIOs, and thus that they are appropriate measures of the PIOs.

A unique additional finding was that there were also statistically significant relationships between the dimensions of both polar orientations, and that these relationships impacted each other. The Innovation Pathways Model (IPM) as shown below supports a model where the dimensions of the PIOs impact and build on each other.

The causal pathway that emerged indicates that a foundation of Freedom can lead to Openness and Collaboration, which can finally result in Flexibility. Flexibility has been found to be the most critical requirement for innovation. Similarly, for the Preservation orientation, there was the indication that Control can lead to Focus and Independence, which can then result in Stability, which has also been found to be the strongest dimension of the Preservation orientation.

Overall, the research provided unique new insights into the complex paradoxical nature of innovation. It was identified that being able to balance key innovation paradoxes successfully assists with leadership ambidexterity, and that identifying unique innovation orientations can provide valuable feedback for leading innovation. This approach enables greater agility for sustainability in a rapidly changing world.

About the Authors

Dr. Gaia Grant is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Sydney Business School in the Discipline of Strategy, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, focusing on research into innovation paradoxes and ambidexterity for socially responsible and sustainable innovation. Gaia is also the Managing Director of Tirian International Consulting, the author of a number of books including ‘The Innovation Race’, and a consultant and keynote speaker. Gaia has worked with a number of corporate clients globally including Google (US), Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts (Canada), Visa (US), Salesforce (Asia Pacific) Colgate Palmolive (Innovation Lab America. Gaia is the creator of ‘The Innovator’s Profile’ (iCLi) and ‘Polar Positioning’ (PoP) tools designed for navigating innovation leadership and culture.

Professor Martin Dowson is the program director of academic development at Excelsia College Sydney. Martin has a PhD in educational psychology (University Western Sydney), and he is currently completing a second PhD in philosophy (Macquarie University). Martin is author of over 250 peer-refereed publications including articles appearing in Review of Educational Research, Journal of Educational Psychology, Contemporary Educational Psychology, Educational and Psychological Measurement, Review of Religious Research, and the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.

Professor Eric Knight is Professor of Strategic Management at the University of Sydney Business School, and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research – Enterprise & Engagement) at the University of Sydney. He is a Fulbright Senior Scholar, and has held visiting appointments at the University of Oxford, Stanford University, and University of California, Davis.

Professor Suresh Cuganesan is Associate Dean (Student Success & Mobility) and Professor in the Discipline of Strategy, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Sydney Business School. Suresh specialises in the areas of strategy, organisational design and strategic financial management. He is also passionate about education that is fit-for-purpose and impactful given our changing society and workplace. Suresh’s current research areas investigate: how technology and data innovations impact work and organisations; and, how organisations can achieve better outcomes through being more open, collaborative and transparent.

*If you are interested in innovation and the concept of ambidextrous leadership, you can find more related content, videos and resources on the Innovation Race website.

*Also check the Tirian website to find more resources on innovation, critical & creative thinking, personal, team, as well as leadership development. Gaia Grant, one of the authors of the white paper, is the managing director of Tirian International Consulting. 





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