Peo­ple think dif­fer­ent­ly. But how is it that entre­pre­neurs think dif­fer­ent­ly? For, if we total­ly under­stood that — and could teach the approach — we should be able to devel­op more entre­pre­neurs. Here’s an ultra-quick brief­ing on what we know.

I’ll start with the con­cept of “explore vs exploit”, which was intro­duced by James March in “Explo­ration and Exploita­tion in Organ­i­sa­tion­al Learn­ing” [Organ­i­sa­tion Sci­ence, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Feb­ru­ary 1991), pp. 71 – 87] to dis­tin­guish how organ­i­sa­tions learn. One of the con­tri­bu­tions made by this arti­cle was to affirm the real­i­ty that, since an organ­i­sa­tions is a col­lec­tion of peo­ple, the way it appo­raches prob­lem solv­ing fol­lows the way its lead­ers and fol­low­ers think. Toward the end of this arti­cle, which is too rich in con­tent to sum­marise here, March says:

Learn­ing, analy­sis, imi­ta­tion, regen­er­a­tion, and tech­no­log­i­cal change are major com­po­nents of any effort to improve organ­i­sa­tion­al per­for­mance and strength­en com­pet­i­tive advan­tage. … The essence of exploita­tion is the refine­ment and exten­sion of exist­ing com­pe­ten­cies, tech­nolo­gies, and par­a­digms. Its returns are pos­i­tive, prox­i­mate, and pre­dictable. The essence of explo­ration is exper­i­men­ta­tion with new alter­na­tives. Its returns are uncer­tain, dis­tant, and often neg­a­tive. Thus, the dis­tance in time and space between the locus of learn­ing and the locus for the real­i­sa­tion of returns is gen­er­al­ly greater in the case of explo­ration than in the case of exploita­tion, as is the uncertainty.

One way to think about this con­cept could be as fol­lows. When an entre­pre­neur (or a com­pa­ny) finds it is doing some­thing very well, many peo­ple with­in the firm nat­u­ral­ly think that the #1 job is to exploit that prod­uct or ser­vice. “Sell­ing like hot­cakes” is the cliché that comes to mind; many will not want to tam­per with evi­dent suc­cess. On the oth­er hand, it took a cer­tain amount of explo­ration to come up with that hot-sell­ing prod­uct or ser­vice. Those with an explo­ration mind­set will want to find what’s next, no mat­ter how suc­cess­ful the firm is right now. Thus, there’s a bat­tle between mind­sets that could eas­i­ly break out as those who love the way main­spring watch­es are sell­ing find them­selves argu­ing dai­ly with those inside the firm who keep men­tion­ing the word “quartz”.

bigstock-brain-30163616Okay now jump to 2013 and a most-inter­est­ing update by Anya Kamenetz in Fast Com­pa­ny. Her arti­cle (“MIT Brain Scans Show That Entre­pre­neurs Real­ly Do Think Dif­fer­ent”) reports on an inter­est­ing study: “Researchers from the neu­ro­science depart­ment and busi­ness school col­lab­o­rat­ed to scan the brains of 63 sub­jects, divid­ed between self-described entre­pre­neurs and man­agers, when engaged in a game.”

This new sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence bol­sters the argu­ment that in today´s world we need more “explorato­ry” think­ing and cor­re­spond­ing actions in order for our organ­i­sa­tions to learn how to do new things that cre­ate val­ue, the essence of inno­va­tion. But, the “aha!” here is that it does not have to be about a bat­tle between think­ing either this way or that way. As she reports:

The entre­pre­neurs in the study, per­haps sur­pris­ing­ly, weren’t any more like­ly to engage in explo­ration. But when they did, they were more like­ly to acti­vate both the right and left sides of their frontal cor­tex. Man­agers main­ly stuck to the left side, which is asso­ci­at­ed with log­ic and struc­tured think­ing. The right side, on the oth­er hand, is asso­ci­at­ed with cre­ativ­i­ty and emotion.

The idea of the “ambidex­trous” mind is noth­ing new; but the over­whelm­ing mind­set, toolset and skillset of today’s man­age­ment prac­tices are marked­ly unfriend­ly to the explo­rative side of the equa­tion. Those work­ing on this Nextsens­ing project are try­ing to change that; we want to equip man­agers and lead­ers alike with becom­ing more ambidex­trous. This, we have found, is the best way to gen­er­ate oppor­tu­ni­ty fore­sense, a set of pre­sump­tive hunch­es that frame what mer­its more exploration.

What would I wish for you and your enter­prise can be summed up around four words: I’d like you to have more ambidex­trous, pro­fes­sion­al, entre­pre­neur­ial-mind­ed lead­ers pre­cise­ly because they incor­po­rate the mind­set, skillset and toolset used by suc­cess­ful entre­pre­neurs to explore new oppor­tu­ni­ties with­out aban­don­ing or replac­ing the com­ple­men­tary skills and tools of exploita­tion. Both are nec­es­sary, but nei­ther is suf­fi­cient in and of itself in today’s dynam­ic, dis­rupt­ed and ambigu­ous world.

While it is clear that one of the chal­lenges of being ambidex­trous is know­ing which mode to be in at any giv­en moment in time, it is also nec­es­sary to have the req­ui­site process­es, tools and skills to be effec­tive once you have deter­mined which mode to be in. So it all comes down to think­ing — and act­ing. As Emer­son mem­o­rably put it, “The ances­tor of every action is a thought.” It doesn’t real­ly mat­ter how you think if you are not con­sis­tent­ly con­vert­ing that idea into reality.

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