The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Strategic opportunities are ones that typically challenge the cultural and structural makeup of the organization that is trying to pursue them. Many times, an innovator or internal entrepreneur finds one of their most difficult tasks is navigating the internal cultural and structural landscape of various levels of leadership, organizational hierarchies, internal competencies, funding are resource allocation mechanisms, and established processes. One of the most important dimensions of this internal landscape is the mindset and behavior of those within the organization who have direct influence over the ultimate success or failure of a new, strategic initiative.
In numerous discussions, readings, presentations and interviews, the concept of mental ambidexterity keeps being mentioned as a trait that is absolutely essential. This trait often gets described in many different ways, as behaviors that are desired (persistent, adaptable), as personality attributes (curious, empathetic), as skills (creative, networked) and as knowledge and expertise (technologically astute, commercial experience). There exists a large volume of research and commentary related to the trait of ambidexterity. If you are interested in this topic, the following provide a place to start:
- Organizational Ambidexterity: Professors Charles O’Reilly and Michael Tushman are credited with coining the term ‘Ambidextrous Organization’ and have written a book about it, The Ambidextrous Organization. They have gone on to speak, write and consult with organizations on the topic.
- Mindset: Carol Dweck came out with a book in 2007 called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, in which she postulates a Growth and a Fixed mindset.
- Integrative Thinking: Roger Martin introduced the concept in the book Opposable Mind published in 2009 where he investigates holding two ideas in “constructive tension”
- Leadership: The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, has a section on Noyce, Moore and Grove at Intel and how different mindsets were embodied in different people.
Mental ambidexterity is not just about holding two opposing ideas in mind at once. It is, instead, about thinking and behaving in two diametrically opposing ways depending on the situation. This is most often manifested as the operational excellence (efficiency) perspective and the business transformation (experimentation) perspective. The ability to be mentally ambidextrous is to be able to accommodate both the efficiency perspective and the experimentation perspective, and to know when and how to behave using the appropriate perspective.
An insightful story about the trait of mental ambidexterity was described by an executive who attended the 4th annual Strategic Innovation Summit. He talked about the leader who, in one meeting, can appreciate ambiguity and uncertainty, who can perceive possibilities without demanding proof and who can comprehend an unclear future. Then, in the next meeting, this same leader can demand detailed data and analysis, ask for precise clarity on options and proof of that outcomes can be achieved. This is a leader who can balance experimentation with efficiency. Both capabilities are required to run a large organization that is simultaneously operationally excellent and transformative.
The type of mental ambidexterity described here is a required ‘meta’-mindset of the best innovation leaders but rarely are both perspectives present in one individual (if you find such an individual in your organization, do everything you can to keep them). More often than now, you will find two or more individuals who together embody this type of mental ambidexterity and who recognize the value of the different perspective the other individual contributes. Many examples of this are given in Walter Isaacson’s book The Innovators.
For some examples of the often opposed and seemingly contradictory polarities encountered in an ambidextrous mind, please the post An Innovator’s Mindset: Traits of a Strategic Innovator.