Companies need ambidexterity when operating in diverse environments that require different styles of strategy simultaneously, or in dynamic environments that require them to transition between styles over time. Companies need to be ambidextrous when operating in both emerging and developed markets, when bringing new products and technologies to market while exploiting existing ones, when integrating start-ups into their existing business, and in a range of other circumstances.
The need to develop ambidexterity is widely acknowledged: in a recent BCG survey of 130 senior executives of major public and private companies, fully 90 percent agreed that being able to manage multiple strategy styles and transition between them was an important capability to develop. But this aspiration is hard to realize. Exploration and exploitation require different ways of organizing and managing. Exploration is facilitated by long-term targets, a flexible and decentralized structure, and a culture of autonomy and risk taking, while exploitation typically requires short-term targets, centralization, standardization and discipline in execution. And switching between them is difficult because managers tend to emphasize what delivered success yesterday. In the words of BCG’s founder, Bruce Henderson, “Success in the past always becomes enshrined in the present by the over-valuation of the policies and attitudes which accompanied that success.”
Ambidexterity is rare: a recent BCG study of the financial performance of approximately 2,000 publicly listed U.S. companies found that only about 2 percent consistently outperformed their industry in both turbulent and stable periods. But ambidexterity is becoming an increasingly critical asset as the diversity and dynamism of business environments rise. The growing economic importance of emerging markets, for example, is expanding the range of environments that companies need to operate in. At the same time, technological change is overturning existing products and business models at an increasing rate.
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Keywords: supply chain management, innovation, operational leadership, management skills