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The Ambidextrous Culture: Learning Ambidexterity in Organization

–Part Two

Last month I introduced the concept of ambidexterity, discussing the ability for organizations to simultaneously exploit and explore the marketplace (see below). Today, we will start unpacking the different aspects of the ambidextrous organization (AO), beginning with the ambidextrous culture.

Learning Ambidexterity in Organization

What is Organizational Culture?

Edgar Schein, a famous cultural researcher once commented that “perhaps the single most important thing a leader does for their organization is set that organization’s culture.” If you only accomplish this one task, then theoretically you will be guaranteed a great organization. I believe this theory whole-heartedly and would add that if you do not intentionally set your company culture, one will take shape anyway that you might not like or even understand. Since current academic thinking says it takes 7 years to change a company’s culture this can be a scary thought!

Organizational Culture is a concept that represents the beliefs, values, and assumptions shared within an organization and has its roots in anthropology, sociology, psychology, and other social science disciplines. First hypothesized in the 1920s, it wasn’t taken seriously by businesses until the 1970s and is still open to new interpretation and discovery today. There are still leaders who believe culture is pure bunk. There is no convincing these organizational “flat-earthers” or otherwise (no offense to real flat-earthers). The rest of us however know that companies both contain and create cultures.

So what type of behaviors and practices are not compatible with an AO culture? Let’s take a look.

Cultural Ambidexterity

 As discussed last month, there is one type of ambidexterity, contextual, which gets into a company’s culture right down to its very DNA, we can refer to this type as cultural ambidexterity. In order to gain cultural ambidexterity, you must have a strong, aware, courageous, and caring leader with the heart of a teacher and learner (more on the ambidextrous leader next month). You also must begin with a healthy, open, and learning culture, as opposed to one whose members are stacking sandbags at their desks.

In her great article How to Kill Creativity, researcher and writer Teresa Amabile says there are many unfortunate behaviors that kill the explorative, creative, or innovative side of organizations, i.e. that kill ambidexterity! Perhaps the best way of describing an ambidextrous culture is by telling you what it’s not, and what it shouldn’t be. Here’s a list built upon Teresa’s research that may reveal the barriers to ambidexterity lurking in your hallways:

  • Homogeneous teams
  • Leaders and managers with little or no knowledge of their employees
  • Criticality or negativity bias towards new ideas
  • Creating a climate of fear concerning the introduction of new ideas
  • An organizational ecosystem that kills creativity
  • Lack of a safety net for mistakes; lack of value placed on failure
  • Little intrinsic motivation/only monetary reward systems (i.e. pay for performance)
  • Lack of sharing problem-solving solutions
  • Lack of valuing knowledge from disparate fields
  • Lack of a place for slower learners to “explore the maze”
  • No allowance for incubation
  • Lack of thought given to job matching
  • Tight control of resources (when unnecessary)
  • Poor use of physical space and lack of design considerations

Ask yourself objectively if you’re suffering from any of these afflictions, keeping in mind the antithesis of these behaviors and practices shines a light on what a healthy AO culture looks like!

Attitude Counts

ATDT, or attitude toward divergent thinking, is the positive or negative attitude taken towards new experiences and thinking abstractly and creatively and significantly impacts an AO regarding exploration.

If your company has an indifferent or negative attitude towards divergent thinking, you’ll see individuals and processes promoting it being undervalued, ignored, marginalized, or even persecuted.

Neurologically, most individuals are either data-driven, analytical, objective (left hemisphere of the brain) or have an abstract, subjective, big-picture way of thinking (right hemisphere), so it’s important for the ambidextrous leader to embrace being a “whole-brain” thinker as they influence their organization.

Cultures that Go Silent

Friend and expert on the subject of Cultures of Silence and Cultures of Voice, Rob Bogosian, attests that organizations go silent for fear-based reasons, and the healthiest organizations have a culture of voice stemming from a strong perception of psychological safety and trust. A successful ambidextrous culture has at its core a culture of safety and trust and is never, ever, silent!

To continue this discussion, leave your questions and comments here and share this article.

Dr. Eric Zabiegalski
Dr. Eric Zabiegalski
Dr. Eric Zabiegalski is a graduate of George Washington University in Human and Organizational Learning and has been researching and studying leadership, learning, and change for over 20 years. Eric has been on all sides of the leadership fence from leader and manager to employee and servant and has practiced leadership and served leaders in some of the most coveted and challenging places in the world. With an early professional history as a technical expert, Eric has gone from being a technical SME (subject matter expert) to being a people SME and considers the human mind, human behavior, and consciousness to be the next great frontier for discovery. It is in this realm where he combines his technical subject matter expertise with his human sociological and organizational expertise for the betterment of individuals, organizations, their processes, and humanity. With additional interests in emotional intelligence or "EQ", servant leadership and followership, neuroscience, complexity science, creativity and ambidextrous organizations, Eric has been driven to finding the right balance of qualities, efforts and behaviors in order to not only build better high performing and learning teams but also create a better world in which to live, love, and grow. Eric lives on the Western shore of the Chesapeake Bay close to Washington DC with his wife, daughter, and Chow dog Wamu. Eric is the author of The Rise of the Ambidextrous Organization and Leading Ambidextrous Organizations, Part 1,2,3 (E-Books).

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