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Michael Tushman

Charles O'Reilly

Ambidextrous Organization
Michael Tushman   Charles O'Reilly

What is the Ambidextrous Organization approach?

The Ambidextrous Organization approach suggests that the same organization cannot successfully pursue various types of innovation. There are at least two types of innovation, and companies would be well advised to divide their organizations into two to pursue each type of innovation separately. The first type of innovation is incremental and should be practiced by the portion of the organization that is focused on execution. The second type of innovation is architectural or discontinuous, and should be attempted by a separate part of the organization entirely dedicated to that more ambitious type of innovation. In the Ambidextrous Organization model, the role of top management is to bring together both components of the organization into a common vision of the firm and to put in place the management process that balances both agendas.

Where does The Ambidextrous Organization model come from?

Although the term “ambidextrous organization” has existed in the business literature for some time, the most authoritative Ambidextrous Organization model was developed by Michael Tushman at Harvard Business School and Charles O’Reilly at Stanford Business School.

The concepts of the Ambidextrous Organization models are best exposed in Tushman’s and O’Reilly’s best-selling Winning through Innovation book, published by Harvard Business School in 1997. A recent article in the April 2004 edition of the Harvard Business Review, also entitled The Ambidextrous Organization summarizes and updates the main concepts of the model.

What's the difference between the Ambidextrous Organization model and other approaches to innovation?

The originality of the Ambidextrous Organization approach lies in the fact that it provides a clear organizational prescription to encourage innovation inside organizations. Many organizational models are either not focused on innovation, or if they are, tend to take the form of loose cultural and team-based exhortations to innovation, where individuals are supposed to play multiple roles. The Ambidextrous Organization takes the view that individuals cannot be that multi-faceted and that organizations need to recognize in their structure the different natures of innovations (and individuals) involved.

The other key strength of the Ambidextrous Organization lies in the link it builds between the “hard” strategic side of innovation, and the “soft” organizational prescription it suggests. The Ambidextrous Organization model provides the missing link in the business world between technology strategy considerations – traditionally the domain of analytically-based technology models – and the organizational and cultural aspects of innovation – traditionally handled through behavioral frameworks. With the Ambidextrous Organization model, general managers can easily cross-walk from strategic to organizational considerations.

Who should sponsor Ambidextrous Organization programs?

The Ambidextrous Organization model is the natural province of CEOs and General Managers since organization design is by definition their prerogative. Heads of R&D and product development are also frequently involved with Ambidextrous Organization efforts, as the resources they control deal directly with innovation issues. Heads of strategy also often play a key role in initiating Ambidextrous Organization efforts. Heads of Organizational and Leadership development are also natural sponsors of Ambidextrous organization programs, in their role as organization design advisor to management teams, as well as developer of innovation capabilities.