Like the examples mentioned above, companies need to constantly change and renew to survive and flourish in today’s chaotic world. To do so, ambidexterity has become a key skill to be mastered. Traditionally referring to the ability to write using both hands, business ambidexterity is an organization’s capability to balance and reconcile conflicting goods, e.g. the exploitation of core activities with the exploration of new business opportunities that may end up cannibalizing your current business —a seeming paradox. For a long time, management theory emphasized the need to separate the two as opposing strategies, such as splitting the tensions between exploitation and exploration across time and space. The article A Multi-Level Model for Organizational Ambidexterity in the Search Phase of the Innovation Process by Silvia Cantarello, Antonella Martin, and Anna Nosella, proposes a multi-level approach for dealing with ambidexterity in your organization, and argues that companies should:
- Design their business so that different departments deal with exploration versus exploitation
- Ensure interaction between the various departments and divisions
- Hire leaders that have dual mindsets, capable of mastering paradoxical thinking
On an organizational level, this makes sense – you can re-organize your departments, or adopt horizon thinking in your business strategy in many ways. Ray Stata, CEO of Analog Devices, built a soundproof room next to his office where he and COO Jerry Fishman could fight. The duo says this allowed them to solve conflicts and maintain the right balance between Analog Device’s opposing business strategies of exploration and exploitation. To balance the two, Stata focuses on maintaining the big picture and seeking new business opportunities, while Fishman works to optimize operational efficiency and core company activities.
How can we instill such dual mindsets in individuals?
Admiral Jim Stockdale was held captive during the Vietnam War for eight years. Upon seeing many of his fellow inmates die, he realized that it was always the most optimistic that died: “those that believed they would be out by Christmas, or next Easter.” Though hope gave them optimism to endure prison life on the short term, hope turned into deep despair —the self-delusion of optimism and years going by without any true progress became too much for them. Stockdale, however, while firmly believing he would get out, did not allow his faith to blind him to his actual situation. He was able to endure and survive captivity, precisely due to his ability to accept and face reality. He had full faith that he would prevail in the end, while simultaneously confront his every-day reality of life in prison. His faith and perseverance enabled him to set in place mechanisms that paved the way to his ultimate release, for example by writing letters to his wife containing key intelligence information on his whereabouts and living conditions.