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Ambidexterity Continuum

Updated: Sep 4, 2019

Getting the Conversation Started

Hello again Humantific readers. This week we are returning to our Secrets of Innovation Series by sharing an overview of the Ambidexterity Continuum and how we use it conversationally. It’s a simple device that can be powerful in initial conversations.

As many of our readers will know: we often work with organizational leaders who are encountering complex marketplace dynamics that lead them in one way or another to find their way into the subject of what today is often called Operational Dexterity, Ambidexterity or Dual Engine strategy. We find that most often leaders arrive into the subject through the complex challenges they are encountering rather then via academic literature or theories.

Some of our readers will know that Harvard Business Review and The IBM Institute for Business Value, among others have, in recent years, published articles on the subject of ambidexterity in organizations attempting to make some of the more academically inclined research/literature a little more user friendly to business audiences.

“In uncertain environments, organizational ambidexterity appears to be positively associated with increased firm innovation, better financial performance and higher survival rates.” Charles O’Reilly & Michael Tushman. Organizational Ambidexterity; Past, Present and Future.

One of the most important lessons is that ambidextrous organizations need ambidextrous senior teams and managers—executives who have the ability to understand and be sensitive to the needs of very different kinds of businesses.” Charles O’Reilly & Michael Tushman, The Ambidextrous Organization.

More recently it has been interesting to see several global management consultancies including Accenture, Deloitte and Bain & Company also arrive into the subject publishing point-of-view papers suggesting firms of the future will have underlying ambidextrous operating strategies.

“We’re beginning to see what the next generation of successful companies will look like….The firm of the future will manage two types of businesses—“Engine 1” of its core and “Engine 2” of its more innovative businesses.” Bain & Company 2017.

…..As a next generation of leaders arrive we are seeing significant interest in ambidexterity as it relates to inclusive culture building.

Ultimately leaders come to the realization that ambidexterity is not an abstraction but rather is representational cognitively of collective and inclusive us. For diverse organizations ambidexterity is home.

A two-engine operating model holds particular promise for companies looking to achieve flexibility, as well as higher returns from their innovation investments."Accenture 2017.

We asked if companies actually own a Division-X and if yes, to what extent they are successful. A staggering 75% of companies with the highest growth expectations for the coming 24 months (above 10%) also own an actual Division-X (or equivalent)." Deloitte 2017

For those of us involved in the subject for a long time, any effort to connect the subjects of future work skills, innovation strategy and ambidexterity is a good thing! This is all positive energy as interest and awareness in the business community regarding those interconnections continues to rise.

Any of that initial mindshifting material is worth reading however much of it falls short in terms of actionizing practicalities. With not a lot of information around regarding practical enabling and operationalizing ambedexterity we find that organizational leaders often struggle to frame the initial conversation in ways that make sense to their particular conditions.

In our initial innovation related conversations with CEO’s we ask him/her to describe what they are grappling with from their perspective. Regardless of industry, what often emerges is a practical story of facing rising complexity, accelerated continuous change, information overload, many competitors and a challenging multi-generational culture building environment. The internal story is often that part of the leadership team is strongly advocating that the organization sticks to the tried-and-true operational knitting with a laser focus, while another part of the leadership team is warning of marketplace storms and advocating significant reinvention. These are typical internal forces for senior leaders.

Wrestling with many external factors in addition to these internal perspectives CEOs often have strong desire to move away from binary choices and from thinking of the organization as a one-track monolith. In some cases leaders, with an intuitive sense, using their own words, have been struggling to make the dual path or dual engine vision real for sometime.

Image Source: Complexity Navigation Workbook, 2015-2019, Humantific.

Listening to stories in this context we are finding that the parts most often missing are how to get a meaningful conversation started among the leaders, how to move from need and vision to action, how to explain the vision to others and how to actually build it, behavioralize it, operationalize it. As part of our innovation capacity building work we often get involved in helping make innovation and ambidexterity conversations come to life.

To help structure an initial conversation we use our simple visual Ambidexterity Continuum model that allows for many variations on a sliding scale. Inside the continuum are the dualities of Pattern Creation and Pattern Optimization that can exist in various proportions depending on numerous variables.

Image Source: Complexity Navigation Workbook, 2015-2019, Humantific.

In the first phase of the Ambidexterity Continuum conversation we look at the simple duality in terms of what we call Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow pictures. Using the continuum we discuss where the CEO thinks the organization was yesterday, is today and where he/she thinks the organization should be tomorrow…with the latter understood to mean approximately 1 year from now.

Image Source: Complexity Navigation Workbook, 2015-2019, Humantific.

With the continuum as a backdrop we can discuss what is and is not going on in the organization to result in this picture. This gives us some hint as to historical context, present state and the degree of change that is probably going to be required.

In Phase 2 of the conversation we can introduce a multiple continuums picture and consider from a division perspective. The duality is multiplied to better reflect the complexity of the organization. For global companies this is important. In the multiple continuums picture various divisions, departments or teams can be envisioned being at different places along the continuum.

Image Source: Complexity Navigation Workbook, 2015-2019, Humantific.

To aid in the conversation we might also use a simple parallel analogy, the Multi-Level / Multi-Horizon Model, again moving away from thinking about the organization as one monolith entity moving at one speed towards one horizon. Together we begin thinking of multiple innovation initiatives, multiple speeds and multiple horizons. In a real time meeting a Humantific person might stand up and quickly draw this model on a white board by hand.

To keep it simple we can imagine a multi-floor building with each floor being tasked with working the continuum in different ways and towards different horizons. The timeline of the horizons might differ from organization to organization with Horizon 1 being the present and Horizon 4 or 5 being numerous years out in the future.

Image Source: Complexity Navigation Workbook, 2015-2019, Humantific.

Floor 1: works on operating the existing system (Horizon 1).

Floor 2: works on optimizing the existing system (Horizon 1).

Floor 3: works on replacing existing products and services (Horizon 2).

Floor 4: works on creating future products and services (Horizon 3).

Floor 5: works on creating future businesses (Horizon 4).

Floor 6: works on envisioning future universes, future ecosystems (Horizon 5).

Floor X: In the basement is a special team of adaptive capacity enablers capable of trouble shooting and helping across all the levels…:-)

Most often this initial exploration using these simple visual models helps the CEO get mentally prepared to have a broader conversation with the leadership team.

In the next phase of the Ambidexterity Continuum conversation other members of the leadership team are invited to engage in conversation adding their views into the mix as an iterative work in progress. This might be organized as a formal workshop or a casual conversation. At that point an additional information field containing visualized marketplace data and other insights is often integrated as well as various internal visualized views.

Typically the initial continuum picture evolves with input from other leaders. (In some cases additional state of the culture research within the organization might be undertaken.) This conversation stream essentially sets the stage for the creation of a new multidimensional

Ambidexterity Innovation Strategy.

In essence we are in real time sewing together and aligning 1. corporate strategy, 2. corporate values, 3. innovation strategy, 4. divisional goals and 5. related skill-building needs. Piece of cake! :-)

This picture begins to look quite different from the old school, one-track monolith depiction of the organization.

The key ingredient underpinning this strategy-making is the realization that we have inside Humantific an interconnected experiential skill-building program that can be undertaken by organizational leaders immediately…not five years from now. The real power of the continuum is that it connects to an adaptive, human-centered innovation process that everyone in the company can learn.

Ambidexterity is no longer something to be aimed for in the abstract as a future vision for a future way of operating but rather something we can begin building right now.

Image Source: Complexity Navigation Workbook, 2015-2019, Humantific.

Key to this approach is embracing the notion that both Pattern Creation and Pattern Optimization are equally valued. Ultimately both become integrated into how the organization defines next generation innovation and value creation.

Adoption of this simple innovation era dynamic has far reaching consequences and often turns out to be a GIANT sized challenge for organizations accustomed to operating old school business models where convergent thinking (decision-making) has traditionally been privileged as the highest form of value. It is this rather fundamental mindshift and skillshift that becomes central to the building of an inclusive, ambidextrous innovation culture. Ultimately that shifting is about skill-building and behavior change, not technology.

Image Source: Complexity Navigation Workbook, 2015-2019, Humantific.

In a future post I will explain how we surface and integrate awareness of the thinking styles of the leaders into the conversation as part of their new self-realization on their journey towards becoming an ambidextrous team and organization. We already know that enabling ambidexterity is fundamental to inclusive innovation culture building. Without this shift in thinking and behavior in the context of deliberate changemaking methodology, innovation and ambidexterity will remain abstractions.

As a next generation of leaders arrive we are seeing significant interest in ambidexterity as it relates to inclusive culture building.

Ultimately leaders come to the realization that ambidexterity is not an abstraction but rather is representational cognitively of collective and inclusive us. For diverse organizations ambidexterity is home.

More soon!


Ambidextrous Conversation Starter Kit: If you are an organizational leader (not a consultant) seeking to jump start a conversation around this subject in your company and would like to receive the HumantificAmbidextrous Conversation Starter-Kit send us an email. kickitup (at) humantific (dot) com



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