Dualism and Ambidexterity in Organizations

Dualism and ambidexterity using the example of road traffic: You are driving in a car and approaching an intersection. From far away you see a red light. Automatically you brake and stop. The red light signals that “stopping” is correct, i.e., compliant with the rules, and that it would be wrong and dangerous to simply drive through the intersection.

The traffic light has an important function: it classifies behavior into right and wrong and saves motorists from an accident. It also marks a dualism: red = standing (right) and green = driving (wrong). They are two states that are mutually exclusive, so they allow only The One or The Other.

How would one solve the problem “intersection” if the traffic light did not exist, i.e. the representation of a traffic rule? A principle like the “right-before-left”, which is common in Germany, could help. It can be applied dynamically to any traffic situation and requires the alertness of all road users.

Dualism saves time and energy (ambidexterity is exhausting):

Simple rules, dualisms, the division into right/wrong help to come to a decision quickly. They save energy and reduce risks. Nevertheless, they lose their meaning when the context changes. Imagine you are standing at the same intersection at half past two in the night, completely alone. Does stubbornly following the rule still make sense now?

In organizations, there are also many dualisms. It is right to do one, but it is wrong to do the other. Organizations have to use limited resources and bring about decisions. Hundreds or thousands of people should be given guidance to make “right” decisions. To do this, structures, procedures, processes, and formal rules are created. Organizations build traffic lights and stop signs and divide into right and wrong behavior.

This makes sense when quick decisions are needed without expending a lot of energy and there are two alternative courses of action to choose from (driving or standing).

But it assumes that the desired target state is known (I call it the reference point). Virtually everyone is familiar with the “project management triangle” with three categories: time, cost, and quality. One depends on the other two. Whether a decision or action is right or wrong depends on which reference has been prioritized. Should a project be completed as quickly as possible (even if quality or costs suffer)? Or is highest quality critical (at the expense of time and cost)?

When context changes, dualistic rules need to be reviewed

Employees do not necessarily need to know this reference point as long as they follow the rules. It becomes difficult for an organization when the context changes in which a reference point was once defined.

Take the example of a plant manufacturer:

For decades, the priority was to avoid risks in projects at all costs (reference point “risk minimization”). This made sense and made the company successful.

Today, the challenge is to digitize or redevelop business models – the focus on absolute risk avoidance comes into conflict with the new reference point of “innovation”. What was right for a long time is now becoming wrong: avoiding risks at all costs.

Take the example of the home office:

Before Corona, many companies already had regulations about home offices. In many, it was not permitted as a matter of principle, in others only under certain conditions (e.g., one day per week, every Friday, etc.). Working at home was clearly regulated. If the company defined “attendance” as the reference point, then the point is clear: coming to the office is right, working at home is wrong.

During corona and lock-downs – the context had changed – those rules were abruptly meaningless. There was a new rule: “work at home” where possible (already showing imprecision here). Today, companies are finding new ways to deal with the home office: some companies are developing elaborate sets of rules about who is allowed to work in the home office, when and for how long, while others are bringing employees back to the office without exception.

In organizations, there are also many dualisms. It is right to do one, but it is wrong to do the other. Organizations have to use limited resources and bring about decisions. Hundreds or thousands of people should be given guidance to make “right” decisions. To do this, structures, procedures, processes, and formal rules are created. Organizations build traffic lights and stop signs and divide into right and wrong behavior.

This makes sense when quick decisions are needed without expending a lot of energy and there are two alternative courses of action to choose from (driving or standing).

But it assumes that the desired target state is known (I call it the reference point). Virtually everyone is familiar with the “project management triangle” with three categories: time, cost, and quality. One depends on the other two. Whether a decision or action is right or wrong depends on which reference has been prioritized. Should a project be completed as quickly as possible (even if quality or costs suffer)? Or is highest quality critical (at the expense of time and cost)?

Ambidexterity: Principle instead of rule

Many companies, however, have reflected and are taking a different approach: they are avoiding strict rules, instead formulating a new point of reference: “productivity” or “accessibility for customers”. New principles are derived from this, for example: Teams should decide on their own responsibility how to best and most productively manage the tasks at hand (similar to drivers in a traffic circle).

For one team this means meeting frequently and working table to table, but other teams mainly stay at home. The problem of “getting tasks done” is solved dynamically, depending on the situation and depending on the needs of the team.

In this paradigm, leadership no longer has the role of formulating a rule, but of supporting a team in finding the best solution for the team – and adapting it to changing situations. Leadership no longer watches over compliance with a rule, but must provide transparency about reference points and develop principles that a team can apply dynamically and autonomously.

In one specific case, this led to good solutions in the teams, but to conflicts and crises among managers. If they had previously seen themselves as “decision-makers,” they suddenly had to change their own role: talk less, listen more. Creating transparency about context and principle (ensuring productivity & accessibility for customers), supporting the team in developing options themselves, deciding and reflecting on them after a test phase.

Ambidexterity instead of simple either/or

As mentioned above, many either-or options are only apparent dualisms, artificially created to simplify processes and avoid more challenging principles. But they ignore that there are in fact many options. When divided into right/wrong, all alternatives except “right” are eliminated.

A well-known dualism is day/night. But is the time of dawn now day or night? How do we describe this intermediate area, the in-between? And can it exist in dualism at all? Doesn’t it rather apply to the transition that both are true?

It goes further: when we decide what action we will take next, there is a clear difference between being at the transition from night to day (getting up, brushing teeth, showering, eating breakfast), and being at the transition from day to night (eating dinner, watching a movie, going to bed, etc.).

Both states are very similar – looking at the dawn – and yet they are fundamentally different. And how do we treat people who turn night into day, shift workers, night owls, party goers – and then spend the day doing what we usually do at night, i.e. sleeping?

It becomes clear that in addition to clearly day and clearly night, there are transitions, intermediate states that cannot exist in dualism. People get into trouble when you are confronted with such intermediate states and now have to decide what is right and what is wrong. In reality, it is not a dualism – or a dilemma – but other states are conceivable.

In organizations, the term ambidextry is used for this (ambidextrous). Yes, organizations need to be stable, efficient and productive. But at the same time, they also need to be able to adapt quickly, to come up with new ideas effectively, to take risks. Ambidextry l

Again and again we deal with dualisms that are an undue simplification:

– Effective vs Efficient
– Work vs Life
– Innovation vs Scaling
– Cost Optimization vs Sustainability
– classic vs agile (project management)

For the sake of simplicity, we pretend that there are only two options, where in reality there are more. To speed up decisions and processes, we resort to this simplification. However, it is precisely in the intermediate states that new opportunities can be found.

Radical Thought Structure: the Tetralemma as tool for Ambidexterity

The tetralemma comes from Indian legal doctrine and was introduced into systemic consulting by Insa Sparrer and Matthias Varga von Kibéd. The tetralemma builds on the apparent dualism “The One” or “The Other”, but opens up further possibilities for action: “Both” or “Neither”.

One dimension becomes two, a field of action opens up:

Even if it seems like a mental provocation, the tetralemma is an effective means of clarification and decision-making. It quite explicitly integrates the in-between areas and transitions and creates changes in perspective.

Example mechanical engineering:

A company is in intense competition, resulting in shrinking market share and low margins. It rejects measures for ecological sustainability (CO2 reduction, waste avoidance, circular economy, etc.) on the grounds that these would increase costs and further restrict competitiveness.

The company has created an artificial dualism: One (cost optimization) vs The Other (sustainability). It has inadmissibly linked two approaches that have nothing to do with each other – and created a logical fallacy.

As long as a dualism or even a dilemma is constructed from this, a conflict remains for the management. If you make their way of working more sustainable, then products become too expensive and they continue to lose customers. If you continue to optimize costs, they will not meet the reduction targets required by law.

The tetralemma now offers two other states:

Both:

Can the company create a paradigm in which sustainable business initiatives simultaneously optimize costs?
Why do we believe we must choose between these alternatives?
Why do we believe that sustainable business practices lead to higher costs?
How might sustainable business even reduce costs – in the short, medium, and long term?
What would we have to stop, change or start in order to define BOTH cost optimization AND sustainability as goals?
What activities are necessary to achieve this?
etc

None:

Is the company’s problem actually about something else?
Why do we think we have to choose between these alternatives?
What are we preventing as long as we are stuck in this dualism?
What problem do we really want to solve through cost optimization (wrong products, poor quality, no innovation, etc.)?

Managers could – instead of sticking to their artificially created dualism – look for new, alternative courses of action and strategies. It becomes clear: clinging to either-or prevents opportunities and limits the ability of people and organizations to act. The additional dimension suddenly offers new options.

The tetralemma is a way of putting existing, artificially created dualisms in organizations to the test and mentally exploring new spaces.

Ambidexterity through Integral Thinking

Dualisms facilitate decisions. Traffic lights ensure regulated traffic without every road user having to dynamically apply a principle at the intersection. Processes provide clarity by describing the right thing to do and, implicitly, the wrong thing to do. Everyone must follow them.

A process is a written chain of decisions about what is the best (and therefore right) way to produce a product or service. But it hides the fact that there are theoretically many other ways to produce the same product or service.

People are trained and conditioned in the either-or mode. It starts in school, where there is one right answer to all questions (and many wrong ones). In crises, we look for the easy solutions, for clarity and order. We look for wrong or right.

But especially in complex situations or in crises, dualistic thinking holds great dangers. Holding on to old rules that may have made sense in the past can lead a team to ruin. It ignores the complexity of reality.

New options only open up when we dissolve mental restrictions in the form of artificial dualisms and also dare to think about the options “both” and “neither”. When managers succeed in getting out of their thinking trap and learn ambidextry – and have the courage to discard old beliefs and rules.

And so that a paradox does not arise at the end: it is not a matter of mastering one or the other form of thinking, but of training both – organizational ambidextry. We have been used to thinking in dualisms since our school days. Thinking in principles, in action spaces, in complexity – we have to practice that. Both are necessary.

This article is part of a series we started to introduce the 17 New Leadership Principles.

More:

“Tetralemma” on Wikipedia

Integrative Thinking, the Tetralemma, Dualism and Ambidexterity are also part of our New Leadership Masterclass:

New Leadership Training

Core principles, competences and practices for modern leadership.

Dauer: 12 days
Classroom / Online
YouTube

Mit dem Laden des Videos akzeptieren Sie die Datenschutzerklärung von YouTube.
Mehr erfahren

Video laden