How do organizations survive in the face of change? Underlying this question is a rich debate about whether organizations can adapt—and if so how. One perspective, organizational ecology, presents evidence suggesting that most organizations are largely inert and ultimately fail. A second perspective argues that some firms do learn and adapt to shifting environmental contexts. Recently, this latter view has coalesced around two themes. The first, based on research in strategy suggests that dynamic capabilities, the ability of a firm to reconfigure assets and existing capabilities, explains long-term competitive advantage. The second, based on organizational design, argues that ambidexterity, the ability of a firm to simultaneously explore and exploit, enables a firm to adapt over time. In this paper, we review and integrate these comparatively new research streams and identify a set of propositions that suggest how ambidexterity acts as a dynamic capability. We suggest that efficiency and innovation need not be strategic tradeoffs and highlight the substantive role of senior teams in building dynamic capabilities.
Dynamic capabilities have been proposed as a useful way to understand how organizations are able to adapt to changes in technology and markets. Organizational ambidexterity, the ability of senior managers to seize opportunities through the orchestration and integration of existing assets to overcome inertia and path dependence, is a core dynamic capability. While promising, research on dynamic capabilities and ambidexterity has not yet been able to specify the specific mechanisms through which senior managers are actually able to reallocate resources and reconfigure assets to simultaneously explore and exploit. Using interviews and qualitative case studies from thirteen organizations, this article explores the actions senior managers took to implement ambidextrous designs and identify which ones helped or hindered them in their attempts. A set of interrelated choices of organization design and senior team process determine which attempts to build ambidextrous organizations are successful.
Corporate executives must constantly look backward, attending to the products and processes of the past, while also gazing forward, preparing for the innovations that will define the future. This mental balancing act is one of the toughest of all managerial challenges – it requires executives to explore new opportunities even as they work diligently to exploit existing capabilities – and it’s no surprise that few companies do it well. But as every businessperson knows, there are companies that do. What’s their secret? These organizations separate their new, exploratory units from their traditional, exploitative ones, allowing them to have different processes, structures, and cultures, at the same time, they maintain tight links across units at the senior executive level. Such ambidextrous organizations, as the authors call them, allow executives to pioneer radical or disruptive innovations while also pursuing incremental gains. Of utmost importance to the ambidextrous organization are ambidextrous managers – executives who have the ability to understand and be sensitive to the needs of very different kinds of businesses. They possess the attributes of rigorous cost cutters and free-thinking entrepreneurs while also maintaining the objectivity required to make difficult trade-offs. Almost every company needs to renew itself through the creation of breakthrough products and processes, but it shouldn’t do so at the expense of its traditional business. Building an ambidextrous organization is by no means easy, but the structure itself, combining organizational separation with senior team integration, is not difficult to understand. Given the executive will to make it happen, any company can become ambidextrous.
In the past few years, a number of well-known firms have failed – think of Blockbuster, Kodak, or RadioShack. When we read about their demise, it often seems inevitable – a natural part of creative destruction. But closer examination reveals a disturbing truth: Companies large and small are shuttering more quickly than ever. What does it take to buck this trend? The simple answer is: ambidexterity. Firms must remain competitive in their core markets, while also winning in new domains. Innovation guru Clayton M. Christensen has been pessimistic about whether established companies can prevail in the face of disruption, but Charles A. O’Reilly III and Michael L. Tushman know they can! The authors explain how shrewd organizations have used an ambidextrous approach to solve their own innovator’s dilemma. They contrast these luminaries with companies which — often trapped by their own successes — have been unable to adapt and grow. Drawing on a vast research program and over a decade of helping companies to innovate, the authors present a set of practices to guide firms as they adopt ambidexterity. Top-down and bottom-up leaders are key to this process – a fact too often overlooked in the heated debate about innovation. But not in this case. Readers will come away with a new understanding of how to improve their existing businesses through efficiency, control, and incremental change, while also seizing new markets where flexibility, autonomy, and experimentation rule the day.