Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Ambidextrous Organisation

“The Roman god Janus had two sets of eyes--one pair focusing on what lay behind, the other on what lay ahead.”[1] This very characteristic is what makes business, sporting, church and aid organisations supremely successful--simultaneously nimble to navigate to a prosperous future and able to consolidate present opportunities--and hence achieve to a work-class standard.

The core of this high-performing organisation is a dual focus on both the present (aligning outcomes to the present reality) and the future (adapting outcomes to the perceived future needs). The Ambidextrous Organisation is based upon the integration of two once diametrically-opposed business models.

Being able to master the principles of adaptability and alignment simultaneously means performing ambidextrously. These organisations have learned to hold the tensions resplendent in exploring opportunities with exploiting opportunities evenly, without losing balance to either.

For the organisation which works from the premise of predominantly aligning itself with today’s reality, the foci is mechanistic and operational and it needs to be authoritative and top-down in its approach to problem solving. The organisation which centres itself on adapting, however, has a much more innovative, visionary and entrepreneurial scope. The former is low risk, the latter high risk.[2]

The problem for organisations which focus too highly on one area as compared with the other, however, is they risk being caught out by the ever-changing business environment or world context, or they perhaps may not attend to the needs of the day in shoring up the present and hence providing for the future.

Then, when organisations do embrace ambidexterity, they invariably fall into the ‘structural ambidexterity trap’--they separate out approaches to innovation and alignment by creating separate departments for each rather than integrating adaptive functions with aligning functions. Separate ‘business improvement’ departments (a.k.a. “silos”) are hence counterproductive in the business sense. The same theory works for any organisation as the overall communication flows and decision-making are stifled in silos. It promotes an awkward ‘us and them’ philosophy to business.

Contextual ambidexterity, on the other hand, works at the level of not only the organisation, but the individual employee too. Think of a worker who can service both the current role and foresee and respond to future needs, simultaneously, through their choice.

This worker is more likely to be working for a leader/organisation that values and enables ambidexterity. They empower the individual by allowing them personal choice on the “activities to pursue in their day-to-day work.”[3] This might seem a luxury to some, but high-performing organisations are also high-trust organisations. They have to be.

The leader of the contextually ambidextrous organisation can also have the freedom to act outside of structural constraints to achieve good business outcomes. There is sufficient organisational tolerance which allows him or her to achieve innovatively.

Ambidextrous Leadership is the espoused management of, “Different alignments [both exploring/adapting and exploiting/aligning] held together through senior-team integration, common vision and values, and common senior-team rewards.”[4] It’s entirely integrative and holistic in its approach with both an eye on the present as well as the future.
[1] Charles A. O’Reilly III & Michael L. Tushman, The Ambidextrous Organization (Harvard Business Review: On Point, 2004), p. 2. Available online: (There are strict copyright controls in place for this work.)
[2] O’Reilly & Tushman, Ibid, p. 8.
[3] Julian Birkinshaw & Cristina Gibson, The Ambidextrous Organisation: Executive Briefing (Advanced Institute of Management [AIM] Research, Oct 2005), p. 5. Available online:
[4] O’Reilly & Tushman, Op cit, p. 8.

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