Do you drive leadership through ambidexterity?

Get the flexibility to take initiatives, innovate at all levels and at the same time thrive at what you are already good at. Sounds too good to be true? Bruce Harreld, Faculty Chair at Harvard is all for that way of operating. He will tell you why in this really short video:

Simply put it’s not enough to look at what you are already good at and ignore potential new areas. Ambidextrous individuals hence drive leadership and take initiatives beyond the confines of their job.

When companies are ambidextrous they are able to adapt to new opportunities and at the same time have alignment around their existing activities. And, this is crucial, they allow leadership to emerge from all levels in the organisation.

Common sense – but frequently ignored

The economic crisis has had a positive impact on ambidexterity. More companies, and people, understand that they have to think outside the box. Just throwing resources at problems is being replaced by a leaner more staged way of problem solving. Lack of resources actually increase creativity and people become more innovative. Provided they are allow to.

Ambidextrous people drive new initiatives

Some scholars as well as practitioners argue that many established companies simply lack the flexibility to explore new territories. And that’s where having ambidexterity come in.

Have never understood why, but companies, and people for that matter, get so stuck in their ways they don’t see the wood for the trees. Thinking outside the box is essential and it’s interesting to note that a top university like Harvard feel there is a need to give courses in how to do so. If you are an innovative person that will not be necessary, but there is obviously a demand from people who need to broaden their horizons. Harvard’s target group for the course may actually be leaders that cannot delegate? Having spent too long in a hierarchical system such leaders probably find it hard to accept leadership driven from all levels in the organisation?

Are you ambidextrous? Do you agree with Bruce Herrald, and me, that it’s propitious to have ambidextrous strategies? Is ambidexterity the way you and your organisation develop? Have you found that lack of resources makes you more creative? Does it give you flexibility and make you look into new areas you would otherwise have overlooked? Are ambidextrous people and organisations smarter? If you haven’t already, are you building an ambidextrous organisation that allows for initiatives, stimulate individuals to stretch themselves and drive leadership? Or maybe you are turning yourself into an ambidextrous person by driving new initiatives as well as your existing activities? Do you agree that in an increasingly global market ambidexterity is the way forward?

Video: HBSExecEd – YouTube

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69 Responses to “Do you drive leadership through ambidexterity?”

  1. akandrewwriter Says:

    Good thought provoking post. Bruce Harreld is completely right that doing what the business is good at and strategic planning for a shift in product or approach, are two different things. Basically it's essential for any business to be open to change. Without change the business will collapse. Apple is a perfect example of this – without the change they made moving into the ipod,iphone etc, was a dynamic shift from what they'd been doing, and that has gone on to put them in areas they've never been in before. Ambidexterity is a new term in relation to business for me – but I completely agree it's essential.
    My recent post 10 Rules for Writing: Margaret Atwood

  2. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad we agree on the importance of ambidexterity, AK.

  3. Geek Girl Says:

    Great post! I have never heard of this term used in this way, but the concept is a crucial one. Too many businesses go out of business because they held on too tightly to their way of doing business instead of thinking outside the box to move forward with the times. Do what you do best and then think of how you can do it better or differently to stay relevant in today's society. I also think this brings to light another thing many large businesses historically have not been very good at, listening to ideas from those within their organizations who may not be senior level but have great ideas. I am glad to hear that Harvard is on the forefront of offering courses to help people learn these concepts. It may be obvious to some of us, but to others not so much. Great post!
    My recent post Amazon Free App Today – Daily AM Workout

  4. catarinaalexon Says:

    Fantastic Pat!! So glad the timing was perfect for you! Being ambidextrous will get you a long way, and it sure increases creativity. And you didn't even have to take a course at Harvard to learn how to be innovative and flexible.

  5. catarinaalexon Says:

    Thanks Cheryl! Doesn't surprise me that we agree:-) Good points you are making and I, especially, agree with "glad to hear that Harvard is on the forefront of offering courses to help people learn these concepts. It may be obvious to some of us, but to others not so much".

  6. Jeannette Paladino Says:

    Catarina – excellent post and video. When I returned to my core competency of writing when I needed more flexibility in my life a few years ago, I didn't realize that I would be he beginning of a new chapter in my life. I learned how to blog and I've often told people after that course I walked through the social media door and never looked back on how I did things before. It was unintentional. But by leaving myself open to new possibilities I re-branded myself. I did invest in some courses, but didn't throw a lot of resources at my new direction. It really happened organically. I knew social media was the future. I just had to latch on to it!
    My recent post Klout Announces New Scoring Model

  7. Susan Cooper Says:

    I was fascinated that Harvard felt there was a need to train/teach that skill set. It's telling that some or many have become so entrenched in a way of doing business that they have forgotten to be ambidexterious. That would also mean that fear of being criticized for failing has hardened in to inflexiblity in business thought… how sad.

    As far as what I am doing? You could say I am all about ambidexterious. That is born out of the fact that I am the executive, assistant, sales manager, sales person. janitor and everything else in between. I am a company of one with the need to be fleible in every way. It's so important that I think out of the box, everyday, because I am doing what many would say is out of the box as business in so many ways. BIG LOL
    My recent post 14 Hands Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Wine

  8. catarinaalexon Says:

    Great example of ambidexterity, Jeannette. Glad to note you are ambidextrous.

  9. catarinaalexon Says:

    Another great example of ambidexterity, Susan. Doesn't surprise me. It's interesting that there is a need for such a course isn't it. You are right about fear playing a part.

  10. GuyW Says:

    Ambindexterity is not a term I've come across in this context, but it's a good one. There's no question that the ability to both manage the current (successful) environment and simultaneously be able to adapt to change and take advantage of new opportunities is key to business survival – just look at how few of the Fortune 500 companies of a century ago still exist.

    Today, with the ever-increasing pace of change, even a big company's lifespan may notbe measured in decades, but (a few) years unless it continues to adapt and innovate to take full advantage of change. Ambidexterity is key.

  11. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you agree with me about the importance of ambidexterity, Guy. Your point about how few of the Fortune 500 companies of a century ago that still exist is excellent.

  12. Leora Says:

    It makes a lot of sense to be open to new ideas while continuing with established business practices that work, whether one calls that ambidexterity or something else. I'm wondering how easily this can be taught. Years ago I took a course at Harvard Business School … it wasn't exactly the most useful course of my career. But maybe he has a way of teaching that will help others move forward.
    My recent post CSS, Mobile Sites and display:none

  13. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you agree with me Leora. Not sure if you can make someone be truly ambrodextrious by attending a course. But at least you can make them understand that they have to broaden their horizons. Making them share power though is another story:-)

  14. clairecappetta Says:

    Great post and it's good in theory and when job seeking years ago, the interviewer looked for out of the box thinking until they gave you the job, then it was squashed with 'follow the companies plan or we like to stick to the way 'we' do it' then you scratch your head wondering what happened to the out of box thinking even though it's essential in order for a company to grow.

  15. Joe Barbieri Says:

    Ambidextrous is another way of saying creativity. I don't believe this is taught but it would be allowed to happen – and everyone can do it. I would hire people who are known to be creative – artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, writers, etc. and then provide the environment for creativity to work. An analogy is that you fill the room with the propane tanks, and wait for the "random" spark to ignite the idea.

  16. catarinaalexon Says:

    Joe, that's stretching it – but fair enough. It is however being taught at Harvard. Not sure I agree with you that all people can be ambidextrous. A lot of people all around the world are stuck in their ways and don't see the wood for the trees.

  17. catarinaalexon Says:

    Love your comment Claire!! From what I understand there are an abundance of such companies in the world. Luckily I have managed to avoid them.

  18. Susan Oakes Says:

    Agree with you Catarina. Once question I have always asked whether working for other companies or myself – Is there a better way? It wasn't always welcomed but it did lead to some companies looking at things differently. One problem is people and leaders can get stuck in their comfort zone and have some level of fear if they move out of it.
    My recent post Walking Successfully Through The Maze Of Marketing Ideas

  19. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad, and not surprised, we agree Susan.

  20. @AriAurelius Says:

    Catarina,_Isn't it Michael Tushman's idea? exploitation and exploration?

  21. catarinaalexon Says:

    Not sure about the details Ari.

    As far as I'm concerned it's common sense. Have lived and worked like that all my life. But there must be a need for people to start thinking outside the box. If there wasn't Harvard would not be giving a course in it.

  22. Charlotte Hill Says:

    Great post! I think it's essential that companies and individuals continually re-evaluate how they are doing things to see if it can be done faster, better, smarter. Embracing new technology can help!
    My recent post We're Celebrating the Opening of Our New H&M By Giving Away $300 in Gift Cards

  23. Bindhurani Says:

    Another term to understand in business. I am not sure, I am a business person yet. When some one is a small business owner, they may have to step in so many different roles. Will that an example to ambidexterity?
    My recent post My First give Away

  24. catarinaalexon Says:

    Yes it could be Bindhurani.

  25. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you like it, Charlotte.

  26. Lubna Says:

    I so agree that the way forward is to think out of the box. Core specialisation is important, but in these changing times, sometimes, your core specialisation can lose value, as your company no longer finds buyers for these skills. Thus, innovation on a personal level is very crucial. This is a very interesting post.
    My recent post Take a Chance

  27. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you agree with me, and Harvard actually, Lubna.

  28. Adeline Yuboco Says:

    I could pretty much say that I'm an ambidextrous person. For the most part, I've been focusing on my writing skills because it has served me well as my bread and butter. I only discovered that I could actually make money out of this after having gone through a spine surgery nearly eight years ago, which didn't make me fit enough to go back to work in my previous career. It was when I was practically broke and at my wit's end that I decided to give this a try. Since then, I've always kept an eye out on learning new skills that can complement what I am doing now. That way, I'm able to offer more to my clients and more opportunities can open.
    My recent post 4 Reasons to Go on a Yoga Retreat

  29. catarinaalexon Says:

    Good example on what can make us become ambidextrous, Adeline.

  30. yearwoodcom Says:

    I've worked in the not for profit sector for over ten years, five of them in a charity and while I've never heard the term ambidexterity as it applies to business, I've certainly had to live it. It has been a stark contrast to when I worked as a government relations consultant where money was rarely an issue and generally the way things got resolved. I've had to rethink my approach to everything and yes, it pushes the creative boundaries and some of my best work resulted. The challenge is that organizations with little resources can also be highly risk averse so while they may need innovation, they can be terrified of it and get completely fixated on the core work. Another great post.
    My recent post Wanted: Communications Goddess

  31. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you like the post, Debra. Don't you think that the more passionate the people in organizations with small resources are the more likely they are to find ways? People working for a pay check will, however, not find ways in such cash strapped organisations.

  32. jacquiegum Says:

    It's a great term…ambidexterity in relation to business enterprises. Especially today with technology driving innovation at break neck speed, one might even deem it essential to growth. In the past, I found that one way to achieve this is to bring in new people from different industries. New eyes…new ideas that could be adapted. Wonderful post!
    My recent post Where’s The Justice…Karma

  33. catarinaalexon Says:

    Thank you, Jacqueline. Love the word as well. Good points you make.

  34. glhstores Says:

    Catarina – I worked for a non-profit organization for years and talk about being ambidextrous – you simply have no choice because there is never enough money to buy your way out of a problem, you have to create your way out.

  35. Greg Says:

    Well as some who is ambidextrous, I could :) But lately I've been thinking that driving leadership is all about showing yourself as one with your community – a commoner – who just works hard in their respective ways.

    Most folks think you have to be better or different but I'm thinking it's totally the opposite. What do you think Cat? How does a new leader build trust?
    My recent post 19 Dos and Don’ts to Help You Juggle Work Life and a Blog

  36. bethnieb Says:

    Interesting name – ambidexterity. I really like the term – lean innovation. I think it’s true that if you don’t have the resources to throw a lot of money at the business, you may be more creative. If you don’t have the time or money to bring in consultants, perhaps you can put yourself to better and more imaginative use.

  37. Susan P Cooper Says:

    When we allow our staff to be ambidextrous in ways that allow for them to discover new ways of doing something, it is a very good day for that organization. When you really think about it, many new products and innovations are a direct result of that kind of flexibility in thinking. The question then would be can an organization that has been fearful of being flexible change even with some training? It would be nice if that could happen. :-)
    My recent post Taylor Fladgate 10 Year Tawny Port: #Wine

  38. catarinaalexon Says:

    Good for you, Lenie. Being ambidextrous goes a long way.

  39. catarinaalexon Says:

    Greg, leadership is a huge subject. To cover everything about it takes at least a book. Since I don't know you I have no idea if you have leadership qualities or not. But being humble is an important aspect of a leader that will be a help for you when building trust.

  40. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you agree that you become more creative when you don't have the resources to throw a lot of money at the business, Beth.

  41. catarinaalexon Says:

    Good points you make, Susan. Don't you think a lot of people in organisations would welcome the opportunity of being flexible and innovative? Maybe they would need training to start thinking in new ways but once that's done it should have a positive impact.

  42. cheryltherrien Says:

    This type of thing has been discouraged for so long it is hard to make the change back. Too many leaders feel threatened by those who can think and contribute to the well being of their company. For those who take advantage of this they find themselves growing their company, many times in ways they would never have thought of. I am thinking 3M and post it notes.
    My recent post #Garden Site 2014

  43. catarinaalexon Says:

    Good and true points, Cheryl. But Western companies have to become ambidextrous if they wish to compete with companies in the developing world.

  44. Sandy Says:

    I have never been in the 'corporate world' but I am sure Ambidexterity can apply to most any profession. I think it is always look for new ways to improve in whatever you doing.

    My recent post The Writing Process -Blog Tour

  45. boomeresq Says:

    My first reaction was, "Of course, it's important to be able to react to new situations and think outside the box." The truth is, I spent the last 15 years of my career as a boss and to be successful that kind of thinking has to be automatic — at least that was my experience. I have worked in organizations where there were people so set in their ways, that they were drowning in their box. Once, when I was on maternity leave, I thought the business manager of the organization was overpaying me. She became very annoyed that I would question her (without even stopping to say, "Oh, I'll look into it.") I believe that honesty in business dealings if very important, but after she gave me a hard time, I let it go.
    My recent post Hawaii Quilt Guild Show: E Ho’onanea I Ka Mili Kapa

  46. JeriWB Says:

    I was an ambidextrous teacher, whereas the public school system in America most decidedly is not. America thinks its innovative, but in reality, that's not often the case.

  47. catarinaalexon Says:

    Exactly, Sandy, ambidexterity can be applied no matter what you do in life.

  48. catarinaalexon Says:

    Yes, Suzanne, to me it's obvious as well. But when Harvard gives courses in ambidexterity it obviously isn't.

  49. catarinaalexon Says:

    Good for you, Jeri. Ambidexterity makes a difference.

  50. andleebakhlaqkhan Says:

    New term to Learn. …. ambidextrous ….Yes I am ambidextrous but my system is not I always try to look out of box , take initiative , challenge existing situation and I always try to be creative. . I totally agree with Bruce Herrald, and you. Ambidexterity is certainly not the way my company is developed. I think they also do not know about this like me . Lack of resources affect different people in different forms , some take it as a challenge and become more creative and some always get a set back.

  51. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you are ambidextrous, Andleeb.

  52. Paul Graham Says:

    Ambidextrous is a new label for a well established truism. It remains more important for the organization to be a centipede than to have more diversity in top down
    My recent post Chinese Takeaway. Food For Thought !

  53. William Butler Says:

    Hi Catarina,
    I agree with you and Bruce Harreld because ambidexterity really shows forward thinking, in terms of creativity and growth potential. I think there's another great reason, and that is as an antidote to stagnation and procrastination. Great post! Thanks!

    My recent post The Trouble With Traditional Thinking: Can You Afford It?

  54. Tim Says:

    I once broke my right arm. I am right handed. Within days I was able to operate in the same manner I had always. Ambidextrous thinking and operating can be learned and is a tool for life and business. It does not always have to be utilized but having it in your arsenal is never a bad idea.
    My recent post Wonders of the World

  55. becc03 Says:

    I am trying to turn myself into an ambidextrous person by looking for new opportunities and looking outside the box. I think the more people out there willing to do this, the better it will be both personally and professionally.

  56. Welli Says:

    I have learnt a new word, ambidextrous and I I love it. I struggled to pronounce it at first but managed finally. In today’s business there is no way you can afford not to be. You cannot be stuck in old proven ways. I have also written a similar content post and yes great minds think alike!!!! Great Post.

  57. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you agree, Paul.

  58. catarinaalexon Says:

    Yes William, ambidexterity is an antidote to stagnation and procrastination.

  59. catarinaalexon Says:

    Good points you make, Time.

  60. catarinaalexon Says:

    Good luck with becoming ambidextrous, Rebecca!

  61. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you learnt a new word and feel you and feel on par with Bruce Herreld, Welli.

  62. Arleen Says:

    I thought the video was great and Bruce Harreld showed ambidexterity in a different way than I would have used the. It is important in these times to take a new approach and it may not cost anymore money but it is a different way of doing business. I will have to admit in order to stay in business I have had to think outside of the box. Great post Catarina
    My recent post Why Companies Trademark Everyday Words

  63. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad, but not surprised, you liked it, Arleen. Ambidexterity is, and has always been, the way forward. If we don't think outside the box the company will, at best, stagnate.

  64. valerieremymilora Says:

    Great video and post. I completely agree that it is important to be ambidextrous in business and forward thinking, I think too many people shy from that concept out of fear.. fear of the unknown, of failure, success… who knows.. and the “old school” way of doing things is to excel at one skill so you pour heart and soul and countless hours into mastering something… then the market place changes and you find yourself unable to adapt.. I’ve been a film and video editor for close to 25 years. When 911 hit and the business slowed down to a screeching halt I had a moment of panic: “What on earth was I going to do? The only profession I knew was editing?” Thank goodness I realized that my skill set is far more broad than editing and I have been able to re-invent myself more than once… I love to keep learning and joyfully embrace the idea of ambidexterity!!

  65. catarinaalexon Says:

    Excellent example of ambidexterity, Valerie. Keep up the good work!

  66. simplysherryl Says:

    I had not thought of it in this way but agree completely. We need to keep stretching and learning new things and become static.

    It is always good to take stock in the way things are done. Are we doing things the way we were taught or have we really looked to see if it is the best, most efficient way.
    My recent post Lambert’s Cafe {Review}

  67. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you agree with me, Sherryl. Good points you make.

  68. tuhinmech Says:

    Ambidexterous thinking has become important in this competitive era. Lack of ambidexterity in an organization results in stagnation of ideas and hinders development! But again very few can actually excel in this field. So can we do something to promote ambidexterity?

  69. catarinaalexon Says:

    Well said, Tuhin. You can't change people, merely make them think. Maybe sharing this video will have some impact on promoting ambidexterity? At least it will be better than doing nothing.

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