Working Paper | HBS Working Paper Series | 2008

Wellsprings of Creation: How Perturbation Sustains Exploration in Mature Organizations

by David James Brunner, Bradley R. Staats, Michael L. Tushman and David M. Upton

Abstract

Organizations struggle to balance simultaneous imperatives to exploit and explore, yet theorists differ as to whether exploitation undermines or enhances exploration. The debate reflects a gap: the missing mechanism by which organizations break free of old routines and discover new ones. We propose that the missing link is perturbation: novel stimuli that disrupt the execution of specialized routines. Perturbation creates opportunities for organizations to invoke exploratory, general-purpose problem-solving routines. In mature organizations, perturbations become increasingly scarce to the point that exploration is stifled and inertia sets in. We suggest that mature organizations can sustain exploration by deliberately inducing perturbations in their own processes. Our theory yields testable hypotheses about the relationships between exploitation, perturbation, and exploration. We provide illustrations from The Toyota Motor Company to show how deliberate perturbation enables efficient exploration in the midst of intense exploitation.

Keywords: Disruption; Innovation and Management; Business Processes; Opportunities; Creativity;

Citation:

Brunner, David James, Bradley R. Staats, Michael L. Tushman, and David M. Upton. "Wellsprings of Creation: How Perturbation Sustains Exploration in Mature Organizations." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 09-011, July 2008. (Revised June 2009, September 2010.)