Ambidexterity: Design concept or design constraint?
1st August 2019 Admin

Ambidexterity: Design concept or design constraint?

There has been much talk and even more published over recent years about the concept of the ‘Ambidextrous Organisation’.

The term has become synonymous with an organisation design concept that delivers a strategic intent to be innovative and responsive on the one hand whilst continuing to deliver effectively and efficiently on the other;  an organisation that is efficient in its management of today’s business and also adaptable to coping with tomorrow’s changing demand, an organisation that uses both exploration and exploitation techniques to be successful.

In today’s business environment it would be surprising to find an organisation that doesn’t face this challenge, other than one whose sole strategic intent is to exploit existing markets and technologies by being a fast follower delivering low cost generics through an operational excellence model.

Before considering the applicability of ambidexterity to organisations today, it is worth looking back at its history. In doing so I reference what I consider to be key milestones in the development of the idea of ambidexterity, for the purposes of a short blog post I have referenced a few of leading thinkers in the field.  This is not a reflection on the immense value of the work of the many I have omitted, purely a shortage of space – I am more than happy to provide a full reference list for those who want to research this topic further.

A brief history of the ‘Ambidextrous Organisation’

1970’s

It is worth reminding ourselves that the term ‘Ambidextrous Organisation’ entered the vocabulary of organisation science in the 1970’s, possibly first being headlined by Robert B Duncan in 1976[1]. 

In the same decade university students were being introduced to the role of nature and nurture in human development and the theory of left brain/right brain dominance, both being presented as binary concepts; nature or nurture? left brain or right brain?  Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the early organisation design concepts of Duncan et al were to a large extent binary. In this traditional view of ambidexterity, organisations chose to split organisational boundaries or units between either explorative work or exploitative work with simple pass-offs across the boundaries. This was manifest by organisation structures that included a separate and discreet ‘R&D’ style function, often geographically as well as organisationally separated from the rest of the company and the customer.

1990’s

The idea of the Ambidextrous Organisation then lay comparatively dormant in the field of organisation science for around twenty years until it then reemerged as a topic of research interest, perhaps in response to advances in technology and an ever-increasing pace of change?

Michael Tushman and Charles O’Reilly III had both explored the concept in earlier work but their joint paper [2] arguably brought it back to centre stage. They hypothesized that organisational ambidexterity, which they defined as “The ability to simultaneously pursue both incremental and discontinuous innovation”, was required for long term survival.

However, in a further development of the concept, Tushmann and O’Reilly highlighted the fact that the so-called Ambidextrous Organisation presented a design challenge when hosting contradictory structures, processes, and cultures within the same organisation. They recognised that the designer is faced with much more than a binary choice about where to put boundaries around work, and that the designer must develop mechanisms which integrate the apparently conflicting objectives of continuously improving the way work is done vs starting again on something new.  Still, even in the mid-90’s there is very little reference to the customer in the development of design choices.

21st Century

Come the 21st century, with its ever-increasing pace of change enabled by better and cheaper technology driven by increasing customer demands, the simple explore vs exploit dichotomy was considered no longer sufficient to explain how organisation structures were evolving. In 2004 Julian Birkinshaw and Cristina Gibson [3] proposed that the two facets of Organisational Ambidexterity, exploring and exploiting, should be reimagined under one of two categories – structural and contextual:

  • Structural ambidexterity being all about creating separate boundaries or structures for different types of activities – boundaries that are either solely aligned or solely adaptive, where employees have clear mandates and are rewarded accordingly.
  • Contextual ambidexterity being where individuals make choices between either the exploitation-oriented or the exploration-oriented activities in their daily work. To allow this, it is necessary for the organisation to be more flexible, allowing employees to use their own judgement as to how they divide their time between their adaptation-oriented and their alignment-oriented activities.

We are now seeing the idea of multi-capability teams being introduced to address the boundary issues that had been identified earlier.

Finally, in this whistle-stop tour of the evolution of the concept we land in 2019 where Jan Ossenbrink, Joern Hoppmann and Volker H. Hoffmann have introduced the concept of hybrid ambidexterity to explain their observed situation of organisations facing multiple strategic choices, leading the organisation to invest in initiatives that combine elements of both structural and contextual ambidexterity – hybrid ambidexterity.

The future of ambidexterity?

Back in the 1970’s when everything that drove a business strategy was moving much more slowly the concept of ambidexterity worked well for organisation designers.  Making a binary design choice to draw a boundary around ‘explore’ work and a boundary around ‘exploit’ work with an R&D department, staffed by specialists and isolated from the customer, taking charge of product development served most organisations well. If only the choices we have to make today were still that simple!

Researchers in the field of organisation science have recognised that the world has become more complex and have tried to explain this by further developing the ambidexterity concept, increasing the design choices and latterly allowing choices to be combined to further increase the number of options through the hybrid ambidexterity concept.

Perhaps the time has come for us to file the language of ‘Organisational Ambidexterity’ in the past. It is clear that those who research the topic are increasingly struggling to force fit their findings into a binary concept, even when they create new linguistic subsets to enable a better fit. If, as organisation designers, we start off with the Ambidextrous Organisation as a design goal we are immediately limiting our design choices. In the 21st Century the reality is that being ambidextrous is not enough, most business’ strategies will contain goals to explore new market opportunities whilst exploiting through both effectiveness and efficiency their core business.  Being able to explore and exploit at the same time has moved from being a differentiator in the 1970’s to being a point of entry today. To succeed, organisations need to be multifaceted, as well as exploring and exploiting to get into the game, they need a compelling customer value proposition to differentiate themselves and win, be that being; product leaders, customer intimate, low-cost, agile, omni-channel, etc.

Part of the art of organisation design is in helping teams make the right decisions at the right time in the design process. Recognising that no organisation can be best at everything our role is to help them decide what their primary customer value proposition is. This decision helps drive future decisions about the design criteria for an operating model that will differentiate the organisation in its chosen markets.

This is no longer an explore v exploit or a bit-of-both decision, the concept of ambidexterity should be confined to history as we move forward with concept designs which optimise the integration of work to deliver multi-faceted business strategies focused on differentiation through the eyes of the customer.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is the view of this author that although the Ambidextrous Organisation may have been a useful concept in the 1970’s and 1980’s when it was in its infancy, it is a constraint on design thinking in the present day and should be confined to history.


Peter Turgoose is a Senior Consultant at ON THE MARK, a global organization design consulting firm and leader in collaborative business transformation with offices in the US and UK. He is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist with over 30 years of experience in applying behavioural psychology for business.


[1]  Duncan, R. (1976). The ambidextrous organization: Designing dual structures for innovation. Killman R. H., Pondy L. R., and Sleven D., (eds.) The Management of Organization Design. New York: North Holland. 167-188.

[2] Tushman, M. L. & O’Reilly III, C. A. 1996. Ambidextrous organizations: Managing evolutionary and revolutionary change. California Management Review, 38(4): 8-30.

[3] Birkinshaw, J and Gibson, C. (2004) ‘Building Ambidexterity into an Organisation’, MIT Sloan Management Review 45(4) pp 47-55

[4] Ossenbrink, J. Hoppmann, J. and  Volker H. Hoffmann, V. H. (2019) ‘Hybrid Ambidexterity: How the Environment Shapes Incumbents’ use of Structural and Contextual Approaches’ Organization Science 2019

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