Ten Tensions in Innovation – Revised

The single most important management skill to develop is a tolerance for ambiguity. Why? Because we often must manage objectives that are contradictory. For example, Firms that are successful at innovation are able to simultaneously come up with ideas that allow them to take advantage of what they’re really good at (exploitation) while also being able to search for novel new ideas (exploration).

This is a hard balance to maintain – the two processes require quite different management skills, different processes, and different measures of success. Exploitation is usually about operational efficiency, while exploration is about experimentation and risk.

These seem almost like opposites – and that’s one of the challenges of trying to manage innovation. To be really good at it, you have to do these things that appear to be opposed to each other.

Here are ten tensions in innovation management:

  1. Exploration versus exploitation: we need to be more efficient while also being more experimental.
  2. Radical versus incremental: this is closely related – we need to have a relatively balanced innovation portfolio. It’s the incremental innovations that improve current operations, but it’s the more radical innovations that keep us in business over the long term.
  3. Now versus the future: our natural tendency is to focus on now. However, innovation is really about the future – we innovate to bridge gaps between where our performance is right now and where we want it to be.
  4. Core competency versus benchmarking: if we are above average at some things, and below average at some others, where do we invest to improve? Do we try to get the below average things up to a benchmark, or do we extend our advantage in our core area of strength?
  5. Analysis versus intuition: In The Design of Business, Roger Martin talks about how design-driven innovation is able to balance the tension between analysis and intuition. Organisations often have one dominant mode of decision-making.
  6. Open versus closed: do all of innovations come from inside of the firm, where we develop the new ideas internally and execute them ourselves? Or do we systems set up so that the ideas we execute can come from anywhere, and some of our own ideas end up being brought to market by someone else?
  7. Centralized versus decentralized: do we create an innovation team that is responsible for driving innovation, or make innovation part of everyone’s job?
  8. Planned versus accidental: is innovation a process that can be managed successfully, so that we are able to consistently perform well at it? Or is the uncertain nature of new ideas so strong that innovation success is mostly accidental?
  9. Structure versus emergence: to recreate innovative success we often need structure – processes, technologies and tools that support innovation. However, these are costly, and as the market shifts around us we this structure might prevent us from reacting to change as quickly as we need to.
  10. Out on your own versus deeply connected: is it easier to innovate when we’re out on our, with no constraints on what we can come up with? Or do we need to be part of the herd, so that we can really understand what people want and need?

These ideas are often presented as either/or choices. However, they are really all things that occur along a spectrum – and the key to managing these innovation tensions is to find some balance.

211/365 Balance

This is where one of Roger Martin’s ideas is useful – to manage these tensions we need to use integrative thinking:

Integrative Thinking is the ability to constructively face the tensions of opposing models, and instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generating a creative solution of the tensions in the form of a new model that contains elements of the individual models, but is superior to each.

These aren’t either/or choices – they are both/and decisions. To be good at innovation, we have to integrate these seeming opposites within our organisations. This is both cognitively and managerially challenging. However, the better you are able to do this, the more successful you’ll be at innovation.

(tug of war photo from flickr/Lucy A. Little scale photo from flickr/cheesy42, both under Creative Common Licenses)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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21 thoughts on “Ten Tensions in Innovation – Revised

  1. Interesting post. I agree a tolerance for ambiguity is important. I think the best way to resolve the tensions you describe is to be decisive. Make a quick decision on a course of action and commit to it 100%. You’ll quickly figure out if you should be doing something different. Too many people let ambiguity prevent them from making a decision. Ultimately the best managers are those who are decisive, courageous and confident (even if they are not always right).

  2. I really love this post, Tim!

    And I more and more think that managing tension is a key capability to be successful in innovation. This issue spans all levels, such as strategy, collaboration, organizational setup, goal-setting, leadership etc.

    But eventually, it comes down to the individual level: as you point out, managing tensions requires the ability to integrate opposites and to deal with ambiguity. That’s how organizational and individual innovation capability is linked.

    Innovators need to be educated for integrative thinking and “ambidexterity”.

    Hope you’re doing well!

    Cheers,. Ralph

  3. Thanks Gene. I agree about decisiveness. We’ve written quite a bit about the importance of experimentation, which is essentially saying the same thing.

  4. Thanks Ralph! That’s an interesting point about how this might be a way to link organizational and individual capability. I’ll have to give that idea some thought – it’s almost certainly an idea worth expanding.

    The original version of this post talked about ambidexterity, but I thought it was a bit too academic and dry, so I cut in the rewrite. That’s part of why it’s good to revisit posts sometimes, I think…

    Things here are good. I hope that you’re doing well too!

  5. You’ll quickly figure out if you should be doing something different. Too many people let ambiguity prevent them from making a decision. Ultimately the best managers are those who are decisive, courageous and confident.Thanks for sharing.

  6. Great post Tim! I think any time you propose something that is potentially innovating, people’s gut reaction is to be uncomfortable with it and find reasons to justify not doing it. In my experience, people typically resist change, which is why many progressive ideas never get off the cutting room floor. I’ve seen this in both big and small organizations, but typically big organizations are more rigid and less nimble than the smaller ones. A great follow-up topic would be, “How to overcome objections and/or getting your innovative ideas off the ground…”

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