Ambidexterity vs. Ecosystems: In Search for Sustainable Model of Intrapreneurship

(This post first appeared on the Front End of Innovation Blog)

Innovation has climbed to the top of the corporate agenda in many large organizations, but its practical impact on the corporate performance has often been disappointing. Some would go as far as to say that the corporate innovation is “broken.”

This is perhaps an exaggeration. Large companies are actually quite good in what is commonly known as incremental innovation, which is a systematic improvement of already existing products or services; they’re also doing a decent job in streamlining operations and cutting costs. However, it’s definitely true that many corporations are much less successful in creating new businesses–no matter how you’d call this type of innovation: breakthrough, radical, transformational or disruptive.

The reason is simple: a hallmark of any successful modern corporation is a flawless, impeccable execution. However, while perfecting execution and establishing the culture of predictability and control, corporation lose the culture of entrepreneurship, the habit of experimenting and taking risky bets. That’s why transformational innovation, with its high rates of uncertainty and failure, struggles to take root in the corporate soil.

Many experts and innovation practitioners see a solution to this problem in bringing the spirit of entrepreneurship back in the corporate fold; a special term, “intrapreneurship,” coined more than 30 years ago, is now actively used to describe this process. Being intrapreneur means working for a large company, yet behaving as a small company’s entrepreneur, that is, cherishing risk-taking and experimentation.

On October 8, in New York City, The Corporate Intrapreneur Summit will take place, organized by the Institute for International Research and Culturevate. The Summit will bring together thought leaders in the field and practicing intrapreneurs from more than a dozen of leading corporations. One topic that is likely to come up in the discussions will be what models of intrapreneurship can be used to get real results.

18713551Back in 2004, Charles O’Reilly and Michael Tushman wrote an influential paper for the Harvard Business Review titled “The Ambidextrous Organization.” O’Reilly and Tushman argued that corporations actually don’t have to choose between investing in existing (core) and new businesses; they can do both (be “ambidextrous”) by creating corporate structures supporting both incremental and transformational innovation.

Critics of the ambidextrous organization concept pointed out that the requirements for both types of innovation are so different, even contradictory, that what makes companies great at optimizing the current business makes them terrible at creating new business opportunities. For this reason, ambidextrous organizations can’t be but a rare exception (3M and Google are traditionally mentioned as these rare exceptions).

41js0B+VpHL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_An alternative to the ambidextrous organization approach has also emerged. In his recent book “Collective Disruption,” Michael Docherty, the CEO of a consulting company Venture2 (and a past successful intrapreneur himself), suggests that corporations should support transformational innovation by creating innovation ecosystems including startups. In this innovation symbiosis of sorts, startups will provide large companies with disruptive ideas along with a playground for testing and early prototyping, whereas large organizations will use their resources to scale up the most viable ideas.

Many would argue that differences between the two models of intrapreneurship are more semantic than real. Both require more openness to the external sources of innovation; both require more flexibility in relationships with outside partners; yet both require the creation of some corporate structures to facilitate the process. It’s therefore very likely that a new, “hybrid,” model may emerge combining the best features of the two original concepts.

Hopefully, the upcoming Summit in NYC will make a significant contribution to creating of such a viable model of corporate intrapreneurship.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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2 Responses to Ambidexterity vs. Ecosystems: In Search for Sustainable Model of Intrapreneurship

  1. Great article Eugene, congrats.
    I am into innovation management and policies. Just yesterday I posted something along this line in my blog and in LinkedIn. In my view, a huge problem in the European innovation landscape is the inability of small companies to scale up mainly due to cultural reasons. Ecosystems in the way you describe them seem a natural way of progressing. Let’s hope to see results and success stories soon.
    Best,
    Antonio Viader

  2. Thank you very much for your nice words, Antonio. Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with the SME landscape in Europe; however, I absolutely agree with you that cultural aspects play a huge role in how large corporations and startups communicate/work with each other.

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