It is not enough to be highly efficient in managing existing product lines and servicing existing customers to succeed in today’s fast-paced business environment. Flexibility is also needed so that to respond to emerging customer demand and bring new technologies to market ahead of competitors. This dual focus is often called ambidexterity (the ability to do two things equally well) and it is increasingly being recognized as a strategic imperative for large companies around the world.

One way of achieving ambidexterity is to create parallel structures—one focused on selling to today’s customers, the other on exploring new possibilities. But such operations often fail because of lack of linkages to their core businesses.

One of the preferred approaches is to build ambidexterity into the heart of the organization, so that individual employees make their own choices between efficiency-oriented and flexibility-oriented activities in the context of their day-to-day work. For example, should a salesman focus on an existing customer account to meet quota, or should he nurture a new customer with a slightly different need?

What does this approach look like it practice? It manifests itself in the way individuals behave: Ambidextrous individuals take initiative, they seek out opportunities to combine their efforts with others, they act as brokers, looking to build linkages between people, and they are multi-taskers. Such individuals are sufficiently motivated and informed to act spontaneously, without seeking permission or support from their superiors.

To nurture these sorts of behaviors, you need to work on the culture of the organization. Culture is shaped by top managers through the system, incentives and controls they put in place, and through the actions they take on a day-to-day basis.

A supportive culture has the following four elements,
Stretch: how individuals are stimulated to push for high quality results and held accountable for those result;
Support: how individuals get access to the tools, information, and security they need to perform;

Space: how individuals gain the degrees of freedom and latitude they need to choose their own path;
Boundaries: the specification of clear limits beyond which the individual must not stray.

The key point about these elements is that they are reinforcing. For instance, too much stretch without support creates burnout, but too much support without stretch leads to a country-club atmosphere. If you want to create a culture that nurtures ambidexterity, take a close look at these four elements. If you a large firm, the chances are you need to find ways of building more stretch and space or individuals to express themselves; but remember you can also create a culture that falls apart in chaos—Enron is a notable case in point. As in so many other things in life, balance is the key.