Do you drive leadership through ambidexterity?

ambidexterity, Harvard, Richard Branson

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. Come to think of it, most companies have a lot to learn from Sir Richard Branson who actually personifies ambidexterity.

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 – Picture: Nick Webb

91 thoughts on “Do you drive leadership through ambidexterity?

  1. I often mention my military experience, and this is a perfect example of what was being discussed above.
    Being stuck in their ways, and a lack of common sense is the definition of how things are done in the military. I believe one od the major reasons this occurs, is the bureaucracy of the leadership. When you have too many leaders, each fighting for a position with each other, you have to follow by the book. If you vary even slightly, others will rat you out.
    Thanks for sharing this with us.

  2. I'm volunteering at the Sarasota Film Festival I attended a new film by an LA-based filmmaker. In the Q&A after the screening, he demonstrated what you're describing. He couldn't make a film within his budget in LA — every location costs money. So they shot the film in Sarasota where they simply walked up to a house they liked, knocked on the door and asked the owner if they could use it for their film They used volunteers, and the community rallied behind them. That's how they got their film — very good – -made within their budget of only $15,000. They had to be creative and think out of the box and get out of Los Angeles!
    My recent post Inc. 500 Ratchets Up Social Media Engagement

  3. “Lean innovation” is an excellent concept and not just in the business world. I see it working in family situations too. An added benefit is the increased sense of ownership on the part of all involved in the problem-solving or project-implementation process. A much deeper sense of satisfaction can be experienced as participants are being challenged to think and be creative, individually and jointly. It has the potential of drawing people closer together rather than having them sit back as helpless, which often leads to complaining about the “problem” and criticizing others in the group.

  4. Great concept and it captures a host of issues. I recently mentioned to my CEO that having too much money can sometimes be more of a curse than a blessing because it lulls you into assuming that all problems can be resolved by simply throwing money at them. Its true in business and in life.

  5. I totally agree with everything Harreld said. For a good part of my career I worked for a company that made most of its money from a mature, legacy business and my job was to develop news businesses within the company. The challenge I had was a conservative British parent company that only wanted to support new businesses that showed an equal or better margin than the legacy business. Proved to be a tough environment for innovation.

  6. Catarina, before we came to Canada we all had to be inoculated and I had a severe reaction to the point where I could not use my right arm. I was in grade 2 at the time and being right-handed I figured I would get out of school work. My teacher thought different and told me to use my left hand. Since then I’ve been able to use both so am definitely ambidextrous.
    When you compare that to business, as Bruce Harreld stated, you can see that it expands what you are able to do – keep the base you’re working with but expand also to new ways of doing things.
    Makes sense to me.

      1. Catarina, I can think of a number of things
        1. Started a blog even though I had no real computer knowledge
        2. Started an Etsy online shop
        3. I have just started compiling my interest in lavender and am thinking about putting it into a book.

        1. Lenie, do none of those three things have anything to do with what you have done before? Are they completely new areas? Have a feeling that may not be the case with lavender because it already was an interest:-)

          1. Catarina, I’ve always had an interest in growing and using lavender but I certainly never thought about turning my knowledge into a book.
            As far as the other two go – when I retired, we had just received computers and were in the process of getting an internet connection. I didn’t even know what tabs were or what landscape and portrait meant and I also didn’t have anyone to show me. It was all done through trial and error.
            Same with the Etsy shop – total new exploration.

          2. The way ambidexterity is used here when it comes to business is that if you get into something you don't know anything about because you think it would add a new dimension to what you already do. Isn't it hence a question mark if doing something with lavender fits under that description, even if it's writing a book? If you suddenly had started, I don't know, repairing cars or developing apps, it would be different.. The rest of your projects however fits nicely into the idea of ambidexterity in business. If I wrote a book about international relations it would not be ambidextrous. But if I learnt about developing apps and wrote a book about that it would be. Besides apps would give us the opportunity of making billions. Pity we, or at least I, don't have that skill:-).

  7. Great post!

    Yes, I believe lack of resources can make one more creative. It forces you to think outside of the box and utilise the little resources you do have. Also one may then discover the many skills that their employees possess and use them to drive the organisation forward.
    My recent post Dealing with the mundane tasks in life

  8. Very fascinating discussion. I have indeed had to embrace the principle of ambidexterity in my business. As an author, I initially thought I could strictly focus on promoting and selling my books. But alas, most writers do not make sufficient funds from their book sales, so they do talks and other activities that help promote their work and their expertise. I find I make as much money from talking about my work and research as I do from writing about it, and I love the variety of activities that results in.
    My recent post Exploring Tlaquepaque

  9. 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?

    1. 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.

  10. 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.
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  11. 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!!

  12. 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

    1. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.
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  16. 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 !

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

    1. It’s great that schools like Harvard see the need to offer such courses. Granted, some people pick the necessary skills up along the way to be truly ambidextrous leaders, but far more do not.

  19. 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.
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  20. 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

  21. 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. 🙂
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    1. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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

    1. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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

  26. 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

    1. 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.

  27. 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

  28. 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

  29. 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

    1. 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.

  30. 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.
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  31. 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.

    1. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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.
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    1. 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:-)

  34. 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.

  35. 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
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    1. 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.

  36. 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

  37. 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.

  38. 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!
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    1. 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".

  39. 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

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