Productivity and GTD

Productivity Strategies: Exploration vs Exploitation

AUTHOR: Francisco Sáez
“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” ~ Albert Einstein
Blog focus

A very important issue in any company is deciding when to invest in improving existing products and services and when to invest in researching new possibilities 1. How many companies have been ruined by blindly following the products that led them to success, not caring to investigate new concepts, technologies and trends?

As an individual, you have a similar problem. At different times of your life and in different situations, you have probably wondered, “Should I continue with what I’ve done so far although it seems suboptimal or, on the contrary, should I seek and try other options, at the risk of not getting any improvement?”

Exploration and exploitation are two executive functions of the mind that manage our attention in a different way. Exploring and exploiting are two different ways of acting and therefore, require a different mindset to operate. In addition, there is a constant tension between these two functions in everybody’s mind.

Exploitation requires our complete concentration to do better what we are doing. It is the origin of efficiency and hence, productivity.

Exploration allows us to get away from our current reality—where we have the focus right now—to visit other realities and find new horizons. It is the origin of innovation.

In more common terms, you are using exploitation when, for example, you go dinner at your favorite restaurant. And when you risk trying a new restaurant, you are exploring.

Exploration is risky. You need to invest resources—time and money—to investigate, and no one can ensure that the result of this research will be worthwhile. There are no guarantees.

But exploitation is risky as well. It makes you feel safe doing things the same way you always did. It feeds the narrow focus of your comfort zone.

A strategy with too much exploration implies not being able to adequately develop the ideas you have experimented, and not enjoying the benefits you were seeking. It’s what happens when you’re jumping from one personal productivity application to another to try the newest things that everyone is speaking of, without actually getting any improvement in your personal productivity.

A strategy of over-exploitation prevents you from adapting to changes. It’s what happens when you keep using the same productivity tricks over and over again when there is probably a system out there that would allow you to save 30% of your time.

Those who know when to switch from one mode of operation to another achieve success both in business and in personal life.

But tilting between the two strategies is not easy. Exploitation is quite comfortable and is easy to stay there. Exploration requires a bigger effort and intention. Exploring implies fighting against established habits.

It is not not about choosing between exploration or exploitation, flexibility or efficiency. It’s about finding the proper balance between the two forces.

1 Notes:
- Exploration vs. Exploitation: An Empirical Test of the Ambidexterity Hypothesis, via Organization Science.

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