traditional entrepreneurialism, in which
individual employees drive change. The
second strategy is top-down, focusing
on what senior leaders must do to design
an organization in a way that would be
receptive to innovation.
As O’Reilly explains it, success comes
from the contrapuntal coexistence of these
“Our approach incorporates the
individual skills view and the organizational
structure view,” said O’Reilly, author of Lead
and Disrupt: Ho w to Solve the Innovator’s
Dilemma. “These are t wo very different
perspectives on how to spark change, but you
have to shift them both.”
For O’Reilly, in order to disrupt on the
organizational level, senior leaders must
become “ambidextrous,” meaning they must
be good at promoting exploitative efforts
while managing exploratory ones.
Fundamentally, this suggests business
leaders who wish to handle disruption
need to manage two approaches that — at
least on the surface — are paradoxical.
Exploitation seeks to streamline, focusing
on efficiency and short-term incremental
improvements. Exploration is precisely
the opposite — companies must be willing
to try new things, iterate, fail, try, and
“The skill sets for each of these are vastly
different — oftentimes people are good at
one and not the other,” he says. “Some of the
things we focus on with students are how
to tolerate these differing perspectives, and
how to align a company to create the space
necessary for both leadership styles.”
IN DEFENSE OF THE
Wilkinson, the author of The Creator’s Code:
The Six Essential Skills of Extraordinary
Entrepreneurs, focuses more on individual
skills necessary to innovate within the
She says that anyone can drive change
within a larger organization, so long as
they are motivated by purpose and they
believe what they’re building is bigger
than they are. Specifically, Wilkinson
Charles A. O’Reilly III is the Frank
E. Buck Professor of Management
and Amy Wilkinson is a lecturer in
management at Stanford GSB.
Photograph by Drew Kelly
Imagine a container ship. They’re heavy
— many can carry more than 10,000
intermodal containers and tip scales at
upward of 150,000 tons. They’re huge —
most measure more than 1,200 feet long.
At top speed, the ships move fast but are
incredibly difficult to shift course.
Big companies are like these ships.
They’re heavy — often with massive
overhead, multiple locations, and thousands
of protocols. They’re huge — with budgets
in the billions or multimillions, and tens of
thousands of employees. Not surprisingly,
change is difficult for these behemoths,
But every big company strives for these
shifts, or risks obsolescence. The challenge
is the subject of a popular course at Stanford
Graduate School of Business dubbed Beyond
Disruption: Entrepreneurial Leadership
Within Existing Organizations.
The course is co-taught by Charles A.
O’Reilly III, the Frank E. Buck Professor of
Management, and Amy Wilkinson, a lecturer
in management. With firsthand anecdotes
from creators within big corporations, the
course seeks to help students understand
which approaches to innovation work, which
don’t, and what it takes to help organizations
nimbly stay ahead of disruptive threats and
avoid problems that lead to decline.
“Whether you’re in the C-suite or
middle management, these skills will help
you innovate and navigate inside a larger
organization,” says Wilkinson.
Here Wilkinson and O’Reilly
share valuable insights in shifting large
OF AMBIDEXTERIT Y
The instructors explain there are two
ways to think about innovation in a big
company. The first take is a bottom-up approach that essentially mirrors
Stanford GSB faculty reveal the art of engineering
to Shift Like
entrepreneurialism within existing orgs.
BY MATT VILLANO