Creative leadership, natural leadership, sustainable leadership, authentic leadership, servant leadership …. is “ambidextrous leadership” the latest leadership fad? On the contrary, ambidextrous leadership is a highly specific leadership requirement for a highly specific case: the scale-up phase.
The term “organizational ambidexterity” was first introduced in business literature in 1976, and got further developed in the early 90s. It was defined as the ability to be efficient in the management of everyday business tasks (“exploitation”), and at the same time adaptive to environment changes (“exploration”).
Traditionally, ambidexterity is organized in business through structural separation, where exploration and exploitation are enacted separately by different parts of the organization. The R&D team is focused on developing for future customer needs through search, discovery and development (exploration). Sales and Operations are focused on meeting today’s customer needs through effective and efficient delivery (exploitation).
However, the rapid change of technology, market and competitive dynamics is making this separation unpractical and unsustainable. Thus, more and more businesses are integrating R&D and Sales & Operations.
For companies in the scale-up phase, integrated ambidexterity is at the core. Pre-revenue start-ups are all about exploration, as they are still figuring out who their customers are. On the other hand, fast growth companies are mostly about exploitation, selling their must-have product as fast as they can. But ventures in the scale-up phase find themselves in the middle: they are delivering to first customers, yet they are still developing their product.
There are different analogies to describe ambidexterity in the scale-up phase. Some talk about driving a race car while building it. Others think of a painter that is experimenting with ground-breaking art, but is still commercially successful. Others describe ambidexterity as “total football”, i.e., playing defense and offense at the same time; defense is all the things that keep the team going; offense is creating strategic distance between yourself and the competition.
Ambidexterity brings a unique challenge to the leadership team. “Ambidextrous leadership” was first defined in 2011 as “the leaders’ ability to foster both explorative and exploitative behaviors in their organization”. In each of the leadership roles of the scale-up MT, ambidextrous leadership manifests itself differently, as described below.
Ambidexterity in Scouting – the role of Chief New Business Development and Sales
Being open to opportunity and being selective about what to pursue
In the scale-up phase, NBD and Sales are heavily involved in “scouting”. Like talent scouts they nurture broad external networks and investigate diverse fields to challenge their initial assumptions, get ideas and find new opportunities. At the same time, they have to be selective about which of the new ideas and opportunities to pursue. NBD/Sales leaders in scale-ups are masters of serendipity. And at the same time, they have the discipline to refrain from the random pursuit of the latest idea.
Ambidexterity in Architecting – the role of Chief Product and Chief Technology
Delivering in the present and designing for future scale
“Architecting” means building a production and delivery engine that efficiently and consistently meets current customer needs and reliably handles quality requirements. At the same time, it means innovating the standard practices in the industry, searching for breakthrough improvement, and designing a delivery model that can support scale, i.e., that is adjustable to future customer needs and much larger production volume. It takes an architect’s mind to be able to think at both levels at the same time. The Chief Product and CTO work hard to meet both requirements and avoid that short-term optimization blocks longer-term breakthroughs.
Ambidexterity in Conducting – the role of the Chief Operations/Chief Organization
Drive flawless execution and letting go of routines, encouraging experimentation
Think of orchestra conductors: instead of playing all the instruments themselves, they empower and enable the entire team. This is a major step-up for leaders in the scale-up phase. It means unleashing everyone’s contribution, fostering collaboration, supporting capability building, coaching on individual development and encouraging new learning opportunities, while being able to step in at times and give direction to the team when needed. There is still so much to be learnt and improved. Therefore, experimentation is key, and hence making mistakes is inevitable. At the same time, reliability, performance and professionalism become important in the scale-up phase. After all, the company is now serving real customers. Great COOs/Chiefs Organization are able to mobilize everyone by raising the energy levels and inspiring the team, but they are also able to tell when to step back. They promote others and allow the space for the team to grow into something greater than themselves.
Ambidexterity in Directing – the role of the CEO
Articulating a compelling vision and pivoting the strategy towards this vision
We see that most leadership teams are struggling especially with the last two. Fortunately, all of the leadership capabilities can be developed through targeted experiential learning that engages the entire organization.
Company X’s scores on ambidextrous leadership (company name removed for privacy reasons). Retrieved from ScaleUpScan, 2022
Leveraging our hands-on work with more than 150 scale-ups, we have also built an ambidextrous leadership development program, structured in modules to be spread out over one year. Each module entails a mission for the team to achieve. We work together in half-day workshops to explore ambidexterity mindsets and capabilities, and put these in practice in the following weeks. The key themes we work on during this program are: 1) reflection and awareness building, 2) reconciling experimentation and performance, opportunity and discipline, future and present needs, 3) nurturing ambidexterity in the organization, 4) responding to success and failure.
Research by ScaleUpNation.
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