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March 26, 2023

12 signs that using 'ambidexterity as an agile transformation model' is not my original idea

By Russ Lewis. Published online March 26, 2023

You see, I thought I was the first agilist to make the connection between agile transformation models and organizational ambidexterity. Certainly, it seemed original when it emerged in conversation with my supervisor. In fact, it was Dr Alireza Javanmardi Kashan’s idea (better make it 13 signs), but it came from our conversation so we said we'd write a joint paper after I’d graduated. It was one of those simple conversations that could change the world but usually runs out of energy after a few weeks.

Middlesex University is encouraging its post-graduate researchers (I'm one) to submit abstracts for their Summer Conference, so I decided to put a title in as a placeholder. I typed "Agile transformation through organizational ambidexterity" into the conference proposal submission system and pressed Save. Then it occurred to me the system would likely search for similar titles - that's a clash you don't want in a conference - so I did the search and was SHOCKED to see the results.

I expected none, but Google returned a dozen interesting results. Top of the list with a paid / sponsored ad was Boston Consulting Group's pages on "Business Resilience" which is related and interesting. Top, but "no banana" BCG.

#1 The agile coach who knows ambidexterity

Result #1 leaped out as this from agile coach Takeshi Yoshida - complete with YouTube video and summary of the ambidextrous organizations. I'd never heard of him before but now I want to connect with Yoshida san.

OK, so I'm not the only agile coach interested in ambidexterity, but has anyone else considered it as a model for agile transformation?

#2 The search for agile transformation models and methods

Apparently, it occurred to Jim Highsmith (presumably, it's THE Jim Highsmith of Agile Manifesto fame and, with Alistair Cockburn, author of some of the best human-oriented and practical leadership articles in the industry). Sadly there's no date on his article for 101 Ways so I don't know when he was thinking about this. But check the opening words, "The Agile community has struggled to find a model for transforming large organizations..." and bam! Jim's #2 result nailed the problem, if not the solution.

Feel free to skip to the Conclusion, as none of the results 3-12 refer directly to agile transformation.

Agile through the ambidextrous lens

Lucratia-Shandi Mathe's (2017) MBA dissertation looks at Business transformation through organisational ambidexterity and organisational agility. I like the term "ambidexterity-agility enhancing capabilities" from the abstract:

"Business leaders should consider the combined enactment of ambidexterity and agility as dynamic capabilities that principally guide strategic, operational and portfolio activities. Fostering ambidexterity-agility enhancing capabilities is paramount to safeguarding a continuous successful integration of ambidexterity and agility as dynamic performance enhancing capabilities."

As well as looking at the intersection of organizational agility and organizational ambidexterity in the South African banking industry, Mathe found two other papers that focussed on the same intersection. Röder et al. (2014) were interested in how IT agility affected ambidexterity, whilst Lee, Sambamurthy, Lim & Wei, (2015) looked at how IT ambidexterity impacted organizational agility. Same telescope, just looking through it from different ends. Mathe is result #3 and provides two bonus results, #4 and #5.

Result #6 was Carin Lindskog and Monika Magnusson's published paper Ambidexterity in Agile software development: a conceptual paper uses the duality of ambidexterity to examine how much of software development is innovation and how much is the refinement of existing know-how. Daniele Binci et al.'s paper Agile Project Management and ambidexterity - A reconciliation of contextual exploration and exploitation also uses ambidexterity to understand agile, in this case, project management, as #7.

I am particularly interested in Carin Lindskog's findings in result #8, Tensions and ambidexterity: a case study of an agile project at a government agency The tensions Lindskog analyzed seem to have a more academic than practitioner focus being learning, organizing, performing, and belonging. I'll reach-out because my next research step is this understanding this next part:

"There are, furthermore, several connections between the ambidextrous responses to these tensions and Agile principles"

Strategic agility

Thomas Clauss et al. look to see if strategic agility could be the path to ambidexterity in Organizational ambidexterity and competitive advantage: The role of strategic agility in the exploration-exploitation paradox suggesting a model of strategic change based on agile. Despite its differences from my recipe, the ingredients are the same. Plus I like papers such as this, based on empirical evidence from surveying senior managers in 150 German engineering firms.

Agile - ambidexterity intersection

Ralph-Christian Ohr has a multi-award-winning blog, and it's not hard to see the value he offers. With a 2x2 matrix diagram and very few words, he nailed the significance of agility AND ambidexterity as #10:

Result #11 was a paper on research trends including the words agile and strategic ambidexterity (not sure about that one), and #12 was a blog post about ambidexterity as "dual transformation". 12 results, three new papers for me to read, but nobody else proposing ambidexterity as the methodology or model for agile transformation. Remember, you heard it here first.

Conclusions

My defense of the claim of originality comes from something quite random. Both Yoshida and Highsmith refer to a 2004 Harvard Business Review article by O'Reilly and Tushman called "The Ambidextrous Organization" so I assume it is that which sparked their interest.

Tushman is a Harvard professor, so the appearance of the HBR article may have been may have been an update to Tushman and O'Reilly's 1996 article which is generally acknowledged to have kick-started interest in organizational ambidexterity. Or, maybe it appeared in response to Gibson and Birkinshaw's breakthrough publication which showed ambidexterity did not only come from structural separation but could be contextual. Contextual ambidexterity appeared in a different journal but the same month and is considered 'seminal' (academic speak for a game-changer).

The connections that I make in my thesis go back to Adler et al. (1999) who studied managers and workers in a Toyota factory in California. There they witnessed contextual ambidexterity in terms of achieving high efficiency in routine manufacturing, and also in non-routine work. they described this as ambidexterity (flexibility and efficiency) and I read it as the Toyota Production System of management was ambidextrous by design. It was, as Taichi Ohno said:

"Toyota process emphasis efficiency, but is efficient with respect to adaptation too"

Ohno, 1988

See this article for an explanation of organizational and contextual ambidexterity.

Photo credit

Thanks to Etienne Girardet for the wonderful photo via Unsplash

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