Developing Ambidexterity: A Leadership Challenge to Engage Both Sides of the Organisational Brain, by Professor Jane McKenzie

By Elizabeth Ferguson, Consultant


I recently took part in an interesting webinar organised by the Henley Business School, with Professor Jane McKenzie speaking on the topic of how to increase the ambidexterity of organisations. Ambidexterity, more usually described as being able to finely manipulate objects with both hands, is in this context the ability to balance both creativity and efficiency within a single organisation, team or individual. It is crucial for organisations trying to differentiate in today’s marketplace as diversity of thought can stimulate creativity and increase efficiency.

What is organisational ambidexterity?


Organisational ambidexterity was described as the ability to reconcile internal tensions, particularly the balance between both efficiency and innovation. Organisations need to build ambidexterity in to their DNA to allow them to be both flexible and reactive – allowing them to innovate but also drive efficiencies.

Ambidextrous organisations are efficient, coherent, recognisable and attractive places to work. However, balancing these two focuses can be problematic. How can an organisation advocate standards while experimenting? How can it balance stability with risk?
Attempting to innovate and drive efficiencies at the same time is challenging. Most organisations either try to do these things in different functions or units, i.e. operations to drive efficiencies and strategy to innovate or they separate them in time i.e. move between periods of innovation and periods of driving efficiencies.

How does an organisation go about doing this?


Professor McKenzie discussed how an organisation’s approach to ambidexterity depends on where the organisation has come from and how it has developed the capability. One organisation discussed uses the phrase “freedom in a framework” while another has developed the key message that innovation is a way of driving efficiency. The Red Arrows are a great example of contextual ambidexterity, whereby the behaviour of pilots is constantly changing depending on the context i.e. their environment, the weather and the location of other planes. Their values attract energy and guide expertise. Discipline and stretch are built in to the context.

For an organisation to become ambidextrous, managers need to “focus on the end game” and adapt depending on what their customers want.

How can you develop ambidexterity?


F Scott Fitzgerald said that “the test of a first rate intelligence is that ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and, still retain the ability to function”.

The necessary personal capabilities to be an ambidextrous leader are:

  1. Pursuing conflicting opportunities and goal
  2. Focusing on both short and long term goals
  3. Multi-tasking
  4. Being both creative and collaborative
  5. Stepping outside the strict confines of the job
  6. Constantly refining and refreshing knowledge and expertise
  7. Looking both locally and far afield for ideas, insight and learning.

The ability to move between transformational and transactional styles may be more difficult for some than others and there is always a tendency to slip back to the preferred way of working. However, ambidextrous people tend to step outside the confines of their role to look to new and different ways of doing things or thinking about a challenge. For example, very scientific, technical individuals should look to the arts, music and literature for learning, while other types of people may look to sport, science or history. Experiencing differences is important.

Planning learning and development to enhance both sides of the brain and develop ambidextrous skills is essential for this way of working. Moving top talent between different business units can be a useful option.

How does a team work with ambidexterity?


A top team working within an ambidextrous organisation needs to develop a strong team identity, or otherwise they will look confused and unsure of their position. This team should be emotionally secure and not be fazed by conflict, recognising that it is not a problem but part of the team’s journey. The team should develop strategies for handling the contradictions of innovation and efficiency, such as collectively exploring the ambiguity, delaying complex decisions until more is known and taking decisions on innovation as a group. Evaluating innovators and BAU individuals against different performance criteria ensures that both skills are valued and recognised within the team.

In summary


In a world where the pace of change is likely to get ever greater, the ability to encourage diversity through balancing both innovation and efficiency will become increasingly important. Top tips for developing ambidexterity within your organisation include: