Tada' the Chinese poles, 2004 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Ideas for Leaders #613

Build Ambidextrous Teams to Combine Present and Future Objectives

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Key Concept

Many companies separate short-term activities focused on the present (e.g. customer service, marketing) from long-term activities focused on the future (e.g. new product development). A new study, however, reveals the power of ‘ambidextrous’ teams, where cohesion overcomes the challenge of pursuing both present and future objectives.

Idea Summary

Companies have both short-term and long-term responsibilities: they must be successful in the present while preparing for the future. While many companies believe they are managing these two priorities effectively, in truth, the urgency of the exploiting the present — launching marketing campaigns, resolving customer service issues or managing the supply chain, for example — grabs the attention of a company’s managers more readily than exploring an uncertain future.

To resolve the pull between short-term exploitation and long-term exploration, many companies differentiate between the two imperatives. While top management teams make decisions on both short-term operations and long-term strategy, the implementation of those decisions is divided among teams focused either on the short term (e.g. improving customer service) or the long term (e.g. developing a new product).

A recent paper by Justin Jansen of the Rotterdam School of Management, Konstantinos Kostopoulos of University of Piraeus, Oli Mihalache of VU University Amsterdam and Alexandros Papalexandris of the Athens University of Economics and Business argues that combining, rather than differentiating, short-term and long-term activities into single ‘ambidextrous’ teams is more effective.

The problem with differentiation is that it separates short-term and long-term learning, thus negating the knowledge and skills synergies between the two. For example, a new product development team focused on creating a great future product will have more success if they build on a clear understanding of the needs and desires of present customers.

Another issue with the separation of short- and long-term activities is that eventually any long-term project will have to be brought back into the current organization. To continue with the NPD team example, eventually the marketing implications of a new product must be covered. In traditional structures, the NPD team would throw the new product ‘over the wall’ to marketing; in ambidextrous structures, the NPD and marketing functions have been collaborating throughout the entire process.

Jansen and his colleagues used survey-based data from 87 teams working in 37 high-tech and pharmaceutical companies to examine the key success factors of ambidextrous teams. Their study focused specifically on the elements of cohesion and efficacy, which they identified as most likely to have an impact on team success. Cohesion concerns how well team members like, respect and collaborate with each other. Efficacy concerns the experience, knowledge and skills of team members.

The research confirmed the vital role that cohesion plays in the success of ambidextrous teams. Members of a cohesive team are more likely to overcome the natural tension between short- and long-term priorities. Efficacy also plays a role, but this role is subordinate to cohesion. In other words, knowledgeable team members are likely to improve the chances of success of an ambidextrous team, but only if they are building on a foundation of cohesion. (An analogy might be a sports team made up of superstars but who do not play well together.)

Real-world organizational teams have proven the effectiveness of ambidexterity over differentiation. The challenge is for companies to acquire a mind-set that focuses less on the tensions between short- and long-term priorities and more on what they have in common. 

Business Application

In addition to identifying the key success factors of ambidextrous teams, the researchers also explored how top management might best ensure this success.

The study revealed that leading cohesive ambidextrous teams of skilled and knowledgeable team members involves a surprising paradox: top leaders should be both supportive and ‘hands-off’.

Supportive leadership — taking steps such as clarifying responsibilities or clearly emphasizing the importance of collaboration and relationships — will reinforce a team’s cohesion.

On the other hand, the presence of top management can undermine the team’s efficacy, as experienced workers chafe under the attention from above. The reason is that knowledgeable employees take such attention as a sign of distrust, assuming that “they don’t trust us enough to leave us alone.”

Thus, top leaders must achieve a delicate balance with ambidextrous teams between being present to reinforce cohesion and stepping back to reinforce efficacy.

The first and most vital step in creating and leading an effective ambidextrous, however, is choosing the right people: knowledgeable employees who like and respect each other, and have a shared history of collaboration.

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