This paper aims to understand better the innovation potential of a firm’s alliance network. Here we analyze the role of an alliance network in terms of the technological distance between partners, a firm’s network position (centrality) and total network density. We study how these three elements of an alliance network, separately and in combination, affect the ‘twin tasks’ in exploration, namely novelty creation on the one hand and its efficient absorption on the other hand. For an empirical test, we study technology-based alliance networks in the pharmaceutical, chemical and automotive industries. Our findings indicate that successful exploration indeed seems to require a delicate balance between these two exploration tasks. A second conclusion is that different network positions yield different pay-offs in terms of the number of explorative patents. In other words, success rates for exploration are not spread equally across firms. However, position alone does not tell the full story. Our empirical findings clearly indicate that exploration success also depends on the other two dimensions of embeddedness, namely technological distance and network density. The three elements of network embeddedness need to be considered jointly in order to understand their complementary effects on both novelty creation and absorptive capacity.