Schools and universities know they need to produce graduates who come up with the “right” answers. But “right” answers alone – with “right-handed” metaphorically meaning disciplined, correct, efficient, and predictable – are no longer enough. The world also needs an abundance of left-handed, new, creative, flexible, open and innovative answers.
For centuries educators have argued which is best, more right biased methods, stressing the importance of core skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic – or left biased ones emphasizing more experiential approaches to learning. Increasingly, educators realize that both is best, just as parents seek to ensure their children learn certain right-handed rules, for example, around morality and integrity, while they also seek to stimulate the left-handed virtues of initiative and sensible risk-taking.
Anyone who doubts these divisions run deep should consult Double Down, the new book on the 2012 US Presidential election by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.
At one point, being urged to debate in a different manner, the authors quote Barack Obama responding to his staff as follows:
“It’s against my instincts just to perform. It’s easy for me to slip back into what I know, which is basically to dissect arguments. I think when I talk. It can be halting.
I start slow. It’s hard for me to just go into my answer. I’m having to teach my brain to function differently. I’m left-handed; this is like you’re asking me to start writing right-handed.”
So, while the US president was making the point about left and right divisions in a different way, most of us understand the need for and aim to nurture mental and psychological ambidexterity.
Many commercial organizations, however, especially those that are large and mature, develop a predominantly right hand bias, becoming ever less supportive of risk-taking, creativity and innovation.
They can become arrogant, risk-averse, slow and unhelpfully bureaucratic. It is not surprising that so many organizations die within 30 to 40 years, with even seemingly invincible giants like Kodak eventually becoming dinosaurs.
There are two easy ways to see if an organization, an industry, even a region or country, is ambidextrous.
First of all see how people feel about the words “failure”, “mistake” and “error”. Are these words perceived as positive, neutral or negative? Of course, you don’t want “stupid” or “disastrous” mistakes where you fail to follow essential right hand rules. However, you need control and creativity.
Healthy, ambidextrous organizations nurture experimentation; and experimentation is almost always going to give rise to some failure. The road to longevity lies in celebrating these failures – fail fast, fail safely, fail cheaply, learn fast and try, try again. But if “failure” is exclusively a negatively loaded word in a particular organization, it too, is probably also a dinosaur.
Secondly, you can gauge levels of commitment, degrees of employee freedom, how far new ideas are supported, how positive are work relationships, levels of dynamism, idea-proliferation, acceptance of appropriate risk-taking, time for having ideas, how far people share a common view, levels of pay and work recognition.
If you work in a company or organization, you may now be thinking that your research and development colleagues and those in new product development may need to push the envelope of the left hand and creativity.
But surely most parts of an organization can do just fine in a more controlled, right hand culture? And although this may have once been true, it no longer is. And the reason is “TIM” – “Total Innovation Management”.
Organizations around the world no longer compete on just product and service innovation. They compete on every possible front. Innovation is everywhere. Innovation is total. Every function needs to find better and new ways to delight its customers.
So the message is clear: celebrate those “smart”, “glorious” failures. Experiment, learn, improve and win. Make sure this idea touches every person and every part of your organization – and so help ensure your organization, region or country survives and thrives for an extraordinarily long time.
Mark Brown is founder of the Dolphin Index Organization and is CEO of Innovation Centre Europe.