Exploration vs. Exploitation

Recently I’ve heard a couple of people talking about this idea of exploration vs. exploitation. The basic premise is that in order as an individual or company you can do one of two things: explore or exploit. Explore is fundamentally about surveying and understanding your options before you commit. Exploiting means doubling down on the things that are working in order to extract the greatest amount of value/utility possible.

An important attribute of this idea is how time is split between the two options. In his book Atomic Habits author James Clear suggests that focusing on one or the other depends on whether the individual or company is winning or loosing. In other words, if the individual or company have found something that is working for them (e.g. a business model, diet, etc.) they should double down and go all the way in. If they haven’t found that they should dedicate most of their time to exploring their options.

Having said so, Clear and others do mention the importance of always dedicating some time to exploring new options even when you’re “exploiting”. It’s obviously hard to suggest a specific split because circumstances differ greatly across individuals and companies but the split that I’ve heard the most is 80-90% of your time should be dedicated to your core competency and 10-20% should be dedicated to exploratory efforts. Google’s 20% policy is commonly cited as an example (although apparently it’s not longer enforced the same way).

In any case, I think it’s an interesting mental model to keep in mind when it comes to structuring how you spend time as an individual and a company.