The Ambidextrous Corporation

by pmckaughan on August 11, 2011

Is your ministry right or left handed? Perhaps your ministry is even ambidextrous. Let me ask that question a different way. Is your ministry more adept at “exploring” or “exploiting?” These terms come from Professors Sebastian Raisch, and Michael L. Tushman, ofHarvard Business School. Most missions I know are “exploiters.” In fact, most came into being because a gifted founder had a proven ministry or program. People gathered around that idea or program. The ministry then grew as it successfully exploited those foundational ideas or programs. The seminal exploring had been done by the mission founder or founders.

If you need to re-invent or renew your ministry, you will probably have to become ambidextrous. You will have to empower or create a group of explorers, as well as maintain your exploiting staff functioning at peak efficiency. That means as a leader you may have to develop an ambidextrous leadership style, one that thrives on contradictions and ambiguity. You will have to live in two worlds where consistency no longer reigns supreme.

In a Harvard Business School Publication put out August 4, 201, I found an article with a somewhat daunting title. Here is the article’s imposing title: A Dynamic Perspective on Ambidexterity: Structural Differentiation and Boundary Activities by professors Sebastian Raisch and Michael L. Tushman. The idea of corporate ambidexterity seems extremely relevant to our “Reset” process.

To re-invent themselves, all organizations must “explore” for new opportunities and new ways of going about fulfilling their calling. On the other hand, to be productive, every viable long-term organization or ministry must “exploit” or execute existing programs and opportunities. These activities of “exploration” and “exploitation” demand hugely different kinds of cultures, leadership and structure.

To “explore,” people need freedom and flexibility to be creative and try new things. To “exploit” a proven idea, product or program there is the need for more centralization, alignment and control. A successful exploitive culture and structure is deadly to exploration. These two activities demand very different leadership styles. The leadership challenge becomes one of enabling both to exist and be productive within the same organizational family.

Expecting a whole ministry that has been built on exploitation and execution to suddenly become explorers is not realistic. The exploitation culture is too embedded. It even unconsciously determines what we see and are blind to. Unprotected, exploitation will always trump exploration. The established will always deprive the new effort of legitimacy, support and resources. Renewal demands both exploration and exploitation. Ambidexterity is essential for organizational renewal.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve Moore August 11, 2011 at 9:21 pm

Paul you have shined a spotlight on a critical reset skill set. I wonder if we could overlay this ambidextrous metaphor on the left brain/ right brain ideas outlined by Daniel Pink in A Whole New Mind?


Paul McKaughan August 12, 2011 at 1:24 pm


The HBS authors didn’t make that connection. I had not thought about it in
that context. They did think that bringing in a group leader from outside to
manage the exploration unit would be helpful and that person should (I never
can remember if it is right of left brain) be intuitive and creative.

It is my feeling that the CEO to who the two groups (explorer and exploiter)
would report could be either right or left brained. The important thing is
that he or she manage the boundaries (the place where the two units
interface within the organization) between the two appropriately and not
insist on a common yardstick for managing and evaluating both. If the CEO is
even handed and consistent in style and substance the explorers will fail to
come up with what the organization needs for future exploitation. The reset
will then fail.

Your friend and fellow pilgrim, … Paul


Rob "Mags" Magwood August 31, 2011 at 6:00 pm

I wonder if we lean too hard one way or the other we end up in a ditch. :) Excellent quote: Unprotected, exploitation will always trump exploration. This may be a challenge for many of us in organizations with “calcified cultures”…

This is a super analogy for the necessary (but difficult) balance – I’ll be seeking to identify policy, people and “thinking patterns” that tend to “unbalance” our efforts.

Thanks, Paul.


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