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Professional Service Innovation | Ambidexterity

In the literal sense, ambidexterity means being both left- and right-handed. In the management literature, ambidexterity refers to the ability of an organization both to excel today and be ready for whatever the future brings. Is your organization ambidextrous?

 Why ambidexterity is importantambidexterity

For an organization, being ambidextrous is essential to surviving both today and tomorrow. If an organization focuses only on:

  • Today’s opportunities
    • Then it will likely fail when the market or customer demands change in the near future
  • Tomorrow’s opportunities
    • Then the firm will not survive, as clients are not willing to wait until you get your services right

Becoming ambidextrous

Becoming ambidextrous is more difficult than it may seem, as excelling both today and tomorrow require very different skill sets.

Excelling today requires:

  • Perfecting what you have
  • Optimizing (typically improvements with an order of magnitude of 10%-15%)
  • Reducing errors
  • Building on existing capabilities
  • Fostering current resources

Whereas excelling in the future requires:

  • Searching and exploring new territories
  • Evoking performance deviations
  • Doing things differently to become 5 to 100 times better
  • Rendering current capabilities and resources useless

 Organizing for ambidexterity

Since the skills needed to excel both today and tomorrow are so drastically different, Tushman and O’Reilly and others have proposed creating a separate unit that can handle exploratory types of innovation. However, others, such as Leiponen, have shown that separate units don’t work in professional service organizations.

In organizations where the work is complex and intangible, and employees are differentiated by discipline (surgery, psychiatry, or corporate and private law) and not by function (marketing, operations, sales, etc), separate innovation units are not the solution to the ambidexterity problem.

In these types of organizations, all departments are required to excel both today and tomorrow. To make this happen requires performance incentives and an organizational culture that supports both activities.

Interested in learning how to make your organization or department ambidextrous, or need help with creating a workable performance structure and organizational culture? Please contact us at info”at” organizing4innovation”dot” com. We are here to help.



Birkinshaw, J., & Gibson, C. B. 2004. Building ambidexterity into an organization. MIT Sloan Management Review, 45(4): 47-55.

Leiponen, A. 2006. Managing Knowledge for innovation: The Case of Business-to-Business Services. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 23: 238-258.

O’Reilly, C., A, & Tushman, M. L. 2011. Organizational Ambidexterity in Action: How Managers Explore and Exploit. California Management Review, 53(4): 5-22.

Tushman, M. L., & O’Reilly, C., A. 1996. Ambidextrous Organizations: Managing Evolutionary and Revolutionary Change. California Management Review, 38(4): 8-30.