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Is your innovation ambidextrous? Lessons from my left foot

Being able to think differently - by using the proverbial left foot - is key to winning the innovation game, says Creativate's Jeremy Suisted.

Cambridge High School was never a proud football school. We were great at rowing, good at rugby and netball - but mediocre at football. That served me fine.

As a gangly legged teenager, I was the rock in the centre of our defence. We had many memorable battles in the Waikato - but one day were entered into the incorrect league at a provincial tournament.

Suddenly, we found ourselves up against the Barcelona’s of the Waikato. We gathered for a brave pep talk, and promised to give it our all.

Our first game kicked off, and I jogged up to mark their central playmaker. The ball was passed to him and I noticed he took it to his right foot, before delivering a beautiful pass through to his teammate.

I filed that away. He was right-footed. Guard him heavily on that side.

Minutes later, the play came our way again. With my new found knowledge, I moved in to attack his right foot.

He deftly pivoted the ball onto his left foot, and delivered an inch-perfect cross to the running striker.

It was that moment I knew I was screwed.

This player had trained hard and had developed an ambidextrous ability. He could kick as hard and accurately with either foot - allowing him to open up both sides of the field, and to make a lesserable defender look foolish.

There’s a variety of skills that require a growth in ambidexterity - most musical instruments, learning to drive a manual car, video games and surgery.

Innovation is a multidexterous (I made that word-up) skill, too. The assessment I utilise with clients measures their ability in sixteen different innovation categories - which a highly innovative organisation must learn to excel in.

However - most businesses pick an innovation mindset and stick to it, restricting their abilities.

In the Journal of Product Innovation Management, Hsing-Er Lin and Edward F. McDonough studied the ability of strategic business units to innovate. Their results indicated that the highest performers were those able to practice ambidextrous innovation - able to look both within and without their business to discover opportunities.

Most businesses have a tendency to do one or the other.

An inward-innovator is excellent at looking within their business and industry for new opportunities and cost-savings, resulting in incremental innovation improvements. They see flaws in the system, practice TQM and keep delivering new updates that benefit their customers.

A great example of this is Coca-Cola. This 130 year old company have continued to incrementally improve their service, delivery and flavours by constantly looking inward at their business, and seeking new ideas and savings.

These inward-innovators continually deliver a reliable product or service to their customers, and are considered ‘safe.’ However, they often miss large market opportunities - and fail to deliver radical innovations, such as Coca-Cola’s disastrous “New Coke” campaign.

An outward-innovator is fantastic at looking outside their business, and seeking wider trends for radical innovation. Often, these businesses - or people - are the ones talking about interesting new ideas, but - by the very nature of this type of innovation - do not deliver as many solutions as would be hoped.

For an example of an outward-innovator - look at almost any start-up on KickStarter. They have looked at trends, and applied them to a new market - from bringing waffle iron patterns to running shoes (Nike), or large-scale precision gardening to the kitchen (as in Herbert).

An outward-innovator delivers new, exciting offerings - but they are frequently plagued by an inability to scale and ship with reliability.

The traditional innovation story begins with a business looking externally, but then becoming fixated on their internal innovation opportunities. The lack of innovation ambidexterity, according to Lin and McDonough’s research, limits the opportunity for a business to innovate continually and increase in profitability.

To become ambidextrous in football, you have to be deliberate in practicing with your non-dominant foot. It isn’t natural, and it isn’t fun - but it is essential.

It is the same with innovation ambidexterity. To become an all-around innovator, you have to be aware of your weaknesses and then deliberate in forcing yourself to practice in that domain.

Acer Inc, are a fantastic example of a company being deliberate in their innovation. In 2000, they recognised they needed to become more outward-innovators in their production of laptops, so forced themselves to use their weakest foot.

Their business units had to practice both inward-looking innovation - by looking at their current technological knowledge and opportunities to create affordable and user-friendly technologies - and outward-looking innovation - by looking at industrial and fashion trends.

This approach was a deliberate, strategic choice, and helped Acer grow from having negligible market share in 2000, to 13.9 percent of global PC production in 2010.

Which innovation approach does you and your business favour? Are you aware of your biases and tendencies? What would it look like to practice with your weakest foot?

Jeremy Suisted is the director of Creativate, a New Zealand-based innovation + design agency. He's now offering clients the services of the Innovation360 Assessment, which analyses and benchmarks an organisation’s innovation in 16 different categories. More information is available by emailing jeremy@creativate.co.nz.