As the founder of Procter & Gamble, William Cooper Procter said in 1930 “this may ruin the soap business. But, if anybody is going to ruin the soap business it had better be Procter & Gamble”.

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In the past years, every C-level executive has had to deal with disruption and change in their business environment: new technologies arriving in their market, disruptive innovations rising to maturity, shifts in their industry structure, and many new dynamics.

The level of business uncertainty and volatility has increased greatly over the years and finding answers has never been so hard. In fact, corporations had to simultaneously take action on two very distinct fronts: existing business activities (time horizon: the now and the near future) and future business (time horizon: the long-term future).

The necessity to make your organization ambidextrous to build a competitive advantage

Improving existing business: the now and the near future

Large corporations mostly operate in mature markets, where competition always takes new forms, fueled by new technologies and innovative newcomers.

Here, the corporation’s mission is to make continuous improvements and upgrades to the current core business. To accomplish its goal, companies should unlock traditional tools (such as increasing operational efficiency or implementing cost-cutting strategies) and can also embark on core-exploration, looking to deploy incremental innovation.

Incremental innovation can be defined as a series of small improvements or upgrades made to a company’s existing products, services, processes or methods to maintain or improve its competitive position over time. 

Therefore, the work revolves around continuous cycles of adjusting, reconfiguring and redefining products, services or processes.

Inventing the future business: the long-term future

Large corporations are aware that disruptive waves can come their way and turn their quiet sea into choppy waters. Here the company’s mission is to create the future by identifying new business opportunities and discovering sustainable blue-oceans. 

To do that companies can embark on radical exploration and unlock various tools such as Corporate Venture, new business partnerships with startups, etc.

The idea is really to expand the business ecosystem, to get access to new assets, new capabilities and new talent. It requires breaking internal silos by adding more autonomy and external exposure. 

Therefore, the job revolves around exploring new territories, not always intuitionally linked to the core business. And even more: new solutions can happen to be potentially threatening to the company’s core business. 

Today, all scholars agree that high levels of exploratory and incremental innovation performed simultaneously within the same organization are leading to competitive advantages. 

But can it be performed by the same (type of) people?

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Improving current business and inventing the future requires different (types of) people

If we frame the two sides of the business coin, we can see that:

Business organisation for innovation

To improve existing business, you need to have people who have a deep knowledge of the company’s legacy, current dynamics, and internal politics. Combining this understanding of the current business with great analytical and planning skills will allow the company to find the right adjustments and incremental changes required to stay competitive. 

On the other hand, for inventing the future business, you need people able to think without having in mind the constraints of the current business. Protecting them from the actual state of the business is necessary to set them free, allowing them to evolve in a very high level of uncertainty where analysis and rules of the current business can fall flat (1 + 1 = X, does not equal 2). 

Moreover, it cannot be the same people working on both missions, as they can conflict with one another: radical innovation can cannibalize existing business shares and ruin the effort of the people working on improving current business.

Don’t ask the same person

So please, don’t ask the same person to look both for solutions to improve printing machines and for other solutions to replace printing machines. 

But still, please do ask people within your organization to look for these potentially threatening solutions. As the founder of Procter & Gamble, William Cooper Procter said in 1930 “this may ruin the soap business. But, if anybody is going to ruin the soap business it had better be Procter & Gamble”.