How to build an ambidextrous workforce

22 February 2021

By Loizos Heracleous

Organisational life is full of apparently contradictory objectives. How is it possible to both control and empower a workforce, to be local and global, enjoy economies of scale yet retain agility and flexibility, or combine high quality and low costs? These tensions between competing goals are endemic in organisations.

Reconciling such corporate conundrums is a potential route to competitive advantage, value creation and success, but it is a tough challenge. Management theory provides some assistance via the concept of the ambidextrous organisation – with ambidexterity often defined as balancing exploration and exploitation capabilities.

Traditional approaches to managing ambidexterity tend to involve 'either/or' solutions, engaging in distinct activities at different times or within different organisational structures. But the solutions proposed are often difficult to implement in practice and the management literature has little to say on what it takes for individuals to better resolve these mission critical conflicts.

My observations of a number of highly successful organisations, however, suggest that the tensions between exploitation and exploration (and other competing objectives) can be resolved through an alternative approach to ambidexterity. Singapore Airlines, for example, combines cost efficiency with award-winning service excellence. Instead of using structural separation, the innovation department is integrated into the existing organisation and staffed by rotating managers from across the company.

Rather than treating ambidexterity as a zero-sum game these organisations address corporate paradoxes simultaneously and synergistically through an approach I call Janus Strategy. It is the title of my recent book (named after the Roman deity Janus, the god of duality), which describes six fundamental principles associated with the strategy.

While Janus Strategy focuses primarily on the organisational and strategy dimensions, a vital contribution is required at the individual level. In particular, there are three 'paradoxical practices' integral to pursuing a Janus Strategy. This is something I developed further with my research colleague Angeliki Papachroni and it is this aspect of individual ambidexterity that I want to expand on here.

The first paradoxical practice is engaging in hybrid tasks that accomplish dual goals. A hybrid task is one that allows progress towards two seemingly incompatible objectives during the same activity. As a simple example, an individual might construct a basic client database exploiting current sales information details. But in addition they might also use that existing knowledge to gain new insights, such as understanding the latent needs of different client segments.  One task, two contradictory objectives achieved.

Another related practice is pursuing actions that cumulatively and over time capitalise on previous efforts. Think of a product designer, for example, who hones their design expertise by exploiting accumulated knowledge and experience in the creation of new products. As with any craft or profession they refine their abilities through application over months and years.

Successful engagement in these two paradoxical practices requires a third practice – the ability to actively seek synergies between the conflicting elements. A certain mindset is necessary to bridge the distance between apparently opposing forces, and create synergies. Individuals must be open to learning, and willing to question assumptions and accepted truths, breaking free from pre-existing paradigms.

It is a mindset, for example, that led Indian cardiac surgeon Devi Shetty to refuse to accept the impossibility of delivering a combination of high quality, affordable cardiac healthcare to the masses. Instead he founded Narayana Health which provides open-heart surgery in Indian medical centres at one sixtieth of the cost of open-heart surgery in the US, and a quarter of the price of local competitors, with comparable outcomes across a range of metrics.

Shetty typifies an attitude common among Janus strategists. Many organisations are built for standardisation, reliability and efficiency. Coupled with factors such as the pressure to hit targets, standardised processes and routines, and corporate politics, there is a tendency to favour exploitation at the expense of exploration. However, people working at the organisations featured in my book, that successfully resolved exploitation-exploration challenges, often had a healthy scepticism of the status quo, and were able to deviate from the dominant paradigm in a positive way. Some of these organisations even created cultures within which such non-conformist social dynamics could flourish.

One useful skill that helps cultivate the mindset necessary to engage in these paradoxical practices is the ability to reframe the conflicting challenges. In his book Images of Organization, published in 1986, organisational theorist Gareth Morgan, examines organisations from a variety of perspectives – as brains, machines, organisms, cultures and political systems, for example.

A similar process can be used to reframe paradoxes. Take the space industry, for example. The space sector is worth some $415 billion, with about 80 per cent accounted for by commercial space. It is a radical change from several decades ago when state space agencies were the main players.

Progress in space still requires a productive working relationship between public and private space organisations. But how should a manager in astate space agency view the relationship with a potential commercial partner when the two organisations might easily have divergent goals?

Applying a multiple perspectives approach, as an alternative to the idea of commercial space firms as competitors, the relationship could be reframed in several ways. Are these space companies: parasites - taking decades of state investment and using it for their own needs; complementary – supportive allies; capitalists – driven solely by the profit motive; dreamers – but lacking real capabilities to match their dreams; or even saviours - organisations that will create real breakthroughs in delivering human missions to other planets.

Another reframing technique is the ladder of abstraction, introduced by linguist Samuel Hayakawa in his book, Language in Thought and Action. This involves changing hierarchical classification terms in order to gain new perspectives.

It is best illustrated with an example. Imagine a Nokia manager in the mid-2000s contemplating how to combine exploitation and exploration in order to maintain dominance in the mobile phone market. Think of the actual phone as being at the bottom of the ladder (most concrete example). Then moving up the ladder of abstraction, the phone is a type of gadget, which belongs to a class of electronics, which facilitate communication, which enables human connection, a universal human need. To gain new insights we can try changing some of the terms, 'communication' to 'entertainment' or 'media' perhaps; or 'electronics' to 'information technologies'. A simple reframing exercise that might have led Nokia to focus on smarter software and digital ecosystems, rather than better hardware.

The god of duality, Janus, is commonly depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions as, according to the Romans, he was able to see both forwards and backwards, to the future and the past, simultaneously. By adopting the appropriate mindset and applying paradoxical practices, managers may equally be able to reconcile competing objectives, and in doing so create synergies that confer competitive advantage and create value.

Further reading

Papachroni, A. and Heracleous, L. T. (2020) "Ambidexterity as practice: individual ambidexterity through paradoxical practices", Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 56, 2, 143-165.

Heracleous, L. 2020. Janus Strategy. KDP. 

Heracleous, L. T., Yniguez, C. and Gonzalez, S. A. (2018) "Ambidexterity as historically embedded process : evidence from NASA, 1958-2016", Journal of Applied Behavioral Science.

 

Loizos Heracleous is Professor of Strategy and teaches Strategy and Practice on the Executive MBA and Executive MBA (London).

Follow Loizos Heracleous on Twitter @Strategizing

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