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Ambidextrous design

The rise of disciplines like design thinking, user-centred design and service design have helped us apply design beyond the world of graphic and products. As the economy shifts to services, design lets us analyze the new market, putting the user at the centre of the research and understanding peripheral elements which may influence the final experience. This method sees people as part of a moving system where things influence one another within a whole and no object is isolated.

So while the rise of service economies has exposed the importance of a holistic approach, in practice many organizations are encountering significant barriers to practicing it internally.

One way to integrate design thinking within businesses is through the idea of the “ambidextrous organization” proposed by Michael Tushman. He argues that a successful organisation should exploit its existing operations while conducting parallel entrepreneurial activities to explore new directions. Design thinking can help to push the boundaries of a given context and create new opportunities.

For Tushman the exploration and exploitation activities should coexist on the management agenda, but should have separate teams nurturing the two different cultures, with shades of Scott Fitzgerald’s famous line that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

But organizations are often not capable of supporting both behaviours internally. Rather than try to do it all themselves and risk compromise or clashes between the two processes, they should focus on what they are good at (exploitation) and collaborate externally engage to explore.

Although Tushman’s focus was on big organizations, the same dynamics can apply to start-ups. For example, take ColaLife, a non-profit organization that has succeeded at creating a social impact. It started when the founder Simon Berry, working in Zambia for the British aid programme, noticed that you could buy a Coca-Cola even in the most remote parts of the world, yet in the same areas, kids died from simple, preventable diseases caused by a lack of medicines. He put those two thoughts together: “Let’s just send medicines using Coke’s supply chain”. That’s how ColaLife started.

Berry recognised an opportunity, sized the existing market capabilities and decided to outsource help to reach his target. ColaLife’s business strategy took off; thanks to the resonance of social media prototypes of a pod full of medicines soon started piggy-backing Coca-Cola crates. This strategy has allowed ColaLife to sell medicines in remote villages at very reasonable costs. Coca Cola is not an active partner in this project, but it gave ColaLife the permission to use its distribution channels on a trial project. What Simon Berry achieved is a good example of how thinking creatively – ambidextrously – can ultimately drive growth.

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