Who is called ambidextrous

Both agile and lean - act with both hands without becoming Janus!

Making the tried and tested effective and the new possible.
(SYNNECTA's longstanding claim)

Organizational ambidexterity. This somewhat cumbersome word was used by Robert Duncan in the 1970s, James March in the 1990s and recently several other authors to denote a central future competence of organizations. The word ambidexterity comes from Latin ambo (both) and dexter (right hand) and describes the ability to handle both hands equally well. Transferred to the corporate context, ambidextrous organizations are efficient and flexible or adaptable at the same time. You can make maximum use of what already exists (exploitation) and explore new things (exploration).

So far, in my blog posts, I have mainly focused on the pole of adaptability and the exploration potential of companies in a situation marked by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA), on the search for adequate behaviors for VUCA handling Example in the areas of strategy, organization, cooperation or leadership. I am still convinced that companies will be confronted more and more with VUCA in the future and with it the exploration will become more and more important. At the same time, I don't mean that the exploitation to lose sight of. Companies will continue to operate to a large extent in environments characterized by stability, security, simplicity and clarity (SSEE). And in the SSEE situation it makes sense to act in a different way than in the VUCA situation.

In order to be able to choose the right approach, it is first important to know what kind of situation you are in. The Stacey matrix named after Ralph Stacey can be helpful here: Stacey correlates the degree of agreement about the path (agreement) and the degree of safety of the path (certainty). If, for example, everyone involved in the company agrees which path should be taken, and it is also clear how to go this path, the organization is in one simple Situation in which it makes sense to fall back on tried and tested standards, subject them to close monitoring and continuously improve them.

The situation is different if there is disagreement about the path - for example due to a high level of diversity among the stakeholders. If, in addition, the way to achieve the goals becomes increasingly uncertain - for example if there is insufficient information or targeted technologies first have to be developed - the organization becomes more and more into one complex Situation (if disagreement and uncertainty both rise to the maximum, the environment even becomes chaotic). Standards are of little help in this complex situation. Here it makes more sense to "negotiate" ways and promote creativity and innovation through open forms of cooperation.

Similarly, the Welshman Dave Snowden distinguishes four different "areas of life" of organizations in his Cynefin Framework: simple and complicated Areas are neat enough to look out of here best or. good practices to clearly deduce what to do. On the other hand, the ambiguity increases in complex and even more in chaotic Areas so strong that only here emergent or. novel practices help. The difference between the first two and the last two areas lies in the following procedure: In simple and complicated areas, I perceive what is happening, then categorize or analyze the perceived reality and shape my reaction based on the results. In complex and chaotic areas, on the other hand, I start testing or acting. Only then do I perceive what has happened and then design my next step in the reaction based on this.

Both the Stacey matrix and the Cynefin framework can be very helpful in companies to identify the current situation of a project landscape, for example. In workshops I have had good experiences with the participants in assigning the individual (sub) projects to the Stacey matrix or the four Cynefin fields on pin boards. After that, it is usually easier to decide which approach is best suited for the respective (sub) project.

Because in simple and complicated Areas it makes sense to work in exploitation To increase efficiencies through standardization, since the necessary stability, security, simplicity and clarity (SSEE) is given. Efficiency programs, for example from the lean environment, make sense here. In complex On the other hand, areas that are characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) are best suited to exploration agile ways of working.

I do not want to go into the details of the lean or agile approaches here, but I would like to briefly outline them in different ways. Coming from the automotive industry and focusing on series production and mass production, the lean approach tries to create a lean company that uses optimized processes and continuous improvement to produce as cost-effectively as possible and in the best quality with the fastest lead times. In order to increase efficiencies, so-called wastes are continuously identified and eradicated. Standardization plays an important role in terms of which changes are to be reduced and full process reliability is to be generated. At the same time, the company ideally has full transparency of all key figures.

In contrast to this, agile approaches originate primarily from the IT environment for generating individual products (which can then be "cloned"). In an iterative procedure, with the strong involvement of the customer, the product is created as a continuous increment step by step, from the first, rudimentarily functioning raw version to the final version. The agile approach is given full flexibility, especially in order to be able to implement changes to the product quickly and cost-effectively in response to changed framework conditions. In short cycles, after work phases (often called sprints), open feedback is regularly obtained in order not to run in the wrong direction for too long, but to be able to adapt at an early stage.

In my experience, agile approaches in companies often fight (unfounded) against a fama of chaos and anarchy - but they are usually not perceived as threatening. In contrast, when a new lean project is announced, every second employee often fears for their job or at least assumes that "harder times" will begin. The creation of transparency is often experienced as an increase in totalitarian control. This is not unfounded insofar as many lean projects in Europe do not seem to be committed to the mindset of the original lean philosophy from Asia: Often lean programs in European companies are actually squeezeouts, according to which the belt must be tightened. And it is not uncommon for these to be initiated from outside with the help of advisors armed with stopwatches and then "beaten" into the organization from top to bottom with heavy use of hierarchical authority.

Lean programs implemented in this way then come into significant conflict with agile approaches: Agile work under pressure from above is not possible. Too much, self-organization in the team and pirate leadership are the central prerequisites for agile work: This is the only way (following Ashby's law) to adequately map the external complexity of the environment within the organization in order to assert control sovereignty.

I will come back to the organizational ambidexterity I introduced at the beginning: Being able to act simultaneously lean and agile actually allows a company to use both hands exploitation and exploration. In today's briefly outlined application of lean approaches, however, there is a massive barrier to the realization of ambidexterity in many companies: Instead of realizing the advantages of two-handed use, companies often unintentionally establish a Janus-headedness and speak with a forked tongue. If, on the one hand, employees are required to organize themselves, communicate without hierarchies and think creatively (in order to exploration and to realize agility), at the same time, however, efficiency programs are pushed into the organization with a hard hand (and exploitation is only operated in the truly negative sense of the word), two fundamentally opposing leadership discourses compete in the same organization. This conflict can then not lead to ambidextrousness, but generates an organizational culture double bindthat unsettles employees and paralyzes the organization.

The Janus-headedness can, however, be prevented if companies, when carrying out lean projects, focus on the mindset on which the Asian Lean philosophy was originally based. In this lean company, employees are actually empowered. They are given a large amount of personal responsibility to raise efficiency potential. Your teamwork is in the foreground and managers see themselves as supporters and service providers for employees. The transparency culture created is then not perceived as a threat (since it is not a control instrument of authoritarian leadership), but rather, paired with open feedback in a healthy error culture, actually serves for constant improvement. All of this is then compatible with agile approaches.

With this mindset, lean and agile approaches in a company both show the same, appreciative and calculable face of leadership. You only speak a clear language of reliable organizational culture with one tongue. Within this, employees can then use both hands to efficiently manage the SSEE world and successfully open up the VUCA world.

Johannes Ries