Accountability and Control as Catalysts for Strategic Exploration and Exploitation: Field Study Results

by Robert L. Simons

Overview — The need for organizations to both exploit current resources and explore new opportunities is a central and long-standing theme in the literature of organizations. The challenge, of course, is that these two imperatives require very different structures and skills. Exploitation demands a focus on efficiency and effectiveness in executing preset plans and procedures. Exploration requires the ability to step outside these routines by emphasizing experimentation, creativity, and novelty. In this study, HBS professor Robert L. Simons focuses on the relationship between two organization design variables—span of control and span of accountability. Using data from 102 field studies, he illustrates how these variables can be manipulated by managers to tilt the balance toward either exploration or exploitation in response to different tasks, different organizational contexts, and changing competitive environments. Key concepts include:

  • Managers can fine-tune their organization along the dimensions of exploitation and exploration more easily than we may have suspected. For these situations, accountability and control can be adjusted to create an opening for entrepreneurship.
  • It is the tension between the resources allocated by organizational architecture and accountability for those resources that provides a powerful catalyst for strategic exploitation and exploration.
  • Most of the research on exploration and exploitation has focused on design architecture (centralization/decentralization, internal venture groups, alliances) and related organizational coordinating mechanisms. We must remember, however, that these structures are merely tools to affect the behavior of individuals. It is individuals, in the end, who must devote their energy and attention to either exploiting current resources or exploring new opportunities.

Author Abstract

This paper reports the collective finding from 102 field studies that look at the relationship between two organization design variables: span of control and span of accountability. Clustering the data yields propositions suggesting that the relationship between these variables may be an important determinant of strategic exploitation and exploration activities. Data from the field studies suggest that, in accordance with the controllability principle, accountability and control are tightly aligned for exploitation activities. However, this result was found in only a small number of tasks and functions. In the majority of situations, spans of accountability were wider than spans of control. This "Entrepreneurial Gap" is posited to be a result of management's desire for innovation and exploration-and used as a catalyst for changing strategy, creating high levels of customer satisfaction, or motivating people to navigate complex matrix organizations. Keywords: Ambidextrous Organization, Strategic Exploration and Exploitation, Entrepreneurial Gap, Accountability, Span of Control. 35 pages.

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