Achieving Ambidextrous Leadership: Driving “Perform & Transform“ Innovation for Step-changed Business Results
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Achieving Ambidextrous Leadership: Driving “Perform & Transform“ Innovation for Step-changed Business Results

March 03, 2021 | Report

Five Steps to Ambidextrous Innovation.

Ambidexterity conveys the two-handed finesse to successfully take on a task with deft touch and wise judgement to deliver a smooth solution. Such an approach captures the challenge innovation leaders face in the post COVID world. This new world will see companies aiming to restore profitability with purpose. Innovation leaders are likely to be pivotal in making this transition a reality. The Conference Board study based on interviews and discussions with 20 major international companies shows Ambidextrous Leadership (AL) is required to achieve the optimal balance between “Perform & Transform” to drive step-changed business results. On one hand, the innovation chief needs to guide, perform practices that ensure incremental and productivity improvements and on the other, transform innovation that focus on creating, developing, and commercialising ideas into new revenues. The old habit of single-handedly reverting to a safe perform strategy needs to be dropped. There is an urgent need for innovation leaders to become truly ambidextrous, dialing up the transform hand to generate new growth opportunities.

Based on our research and interviews with innovation practitioners, we have identified five key steps required to implement an ambidextrous innovation approach.  

  1. Realign Performance Metrics to transform not just perform innovation activities. Few firms have a balanced, tailored approach to metrics -- yet. Perform often has established financial metrics; these tend to work against entrepreneurial Transform projects.
  2. Hitting the Innovation Sweet-Spot within the boundaries set by the innovation leader. First, the boundaries for the innovation focus must be set by the leader. Second, creating the best mix of management sponsorship, operational autonomy, and team priorities provides the optimal conditions for ambidextrous leadership to take root.
  3. Integrate to Identify Solutions. The innovation leader needs to break through organisational silos, integrating business unit priorities with innovation efforts early. Adding diversity of experience and thinking can ensure honed, consumer-relevant solutions.
  4. Think and Live Outside! The ambidextrous leader should refocus internal linear innovation processes towards more agile, strategic, selective external ecosystem management. As corporate boundaries blur creating opportunities to expand external partnerships with traditional and non-traditional partners, expertise and insights are critical to powering integrated customer solutions. The innovation leader must develop brave and courageous external relationships to enable this deep organisational shift.
  5. Empowered Small, Focused Teams. The leader must play a vital role in shifting towards a “safe” learning culture. Creating a new norm which embraces (early) failure and learns from failures to drive transformational innovation should be top of the leaders’ agenda. This shift in mindset can move the needle on embedding innovation across the world.

All these stages are required to achieve the full business benefits. A key finding of our study is AL is critical to ensuring a firm can re-orientate its business model to compete in post-COVID marketplaces. We have identified three pillars which underpin our Ambidextrous Innovation model.


Pillars to Underpin AL  

Time is of the essence and innovation leaders need to move fast. Holding up the mirror to reflect on how they lead a critical first step. Our study identifies three supporting pillars which need to be in place to allow innovation chiefs to unleash the full potential of AL.

  1. Entrepreneurial Mindset. The first pillar to develop is bringing greater entrepreneurial spirit into the innovation team and the business. Innovation leaders are often renowned for their technical prowess but in these times this is not enough, The innovation leader needs to bring commerciality to their portfolio of skills. No doubt, this need has been amplified by COVID.
  2. Psychological Safety. A second pillar for innovation leaders to put in place is a culture characterised by psychological safety. This requires a shift towards, what Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson calls, a ‘fearless organisation’ providing psychological safety for all people in the team. This is an absolute pre-requisite for success. The innovation leader needs to create the conditions for growth with deft touch using both metrics and a fearless, safe learning culture. As Edmondson puts it: “leaders who are approachable and accessible…can do much to establish and enhance psychological safety in their [innovation teams]. Powerful tools, indeed”.
  3. Resilient Teaming. The post-COVID business world is extremely volatile, and full of uncertainty. Recoding team behaviours to do the right thing in upholding ethics and policy can create greater resilience. It also requires better sensing of organisational dynamics. Treading on the toes of other functions can slow down progress, or at worst, cause the termination of an excellent new business product. Steering a course which takes on board the views of people from across the business is essential. In sum, as New York based author Steven Johnson has noted: “innovation does not just come from giving people incentives, it comes from creating the environments where their ideas can connect”.

ambidextrous leadership

 About This Report.

As the world plots its way back to a kind ofnormal in the aftermath of COVID 19, business growth is critical. What new products does the world require? And, how can we rapidly innovative to meet this demand, in a sustainable way? Our paper shows how innovation leaders can re-ignite growth through becoming ambidextrous leaders. The contribution to new knowledge draws on the work of Edmonson, Christensen, Adner, Edmonson and Mayer. The study is based on interviews and discussions with 20 major international companies in software; luxury; FMCG, mining, oil & gas; chemicals; construction; internet infrastructure; banking; pharma and healthcare. These household names have brought countless new products to market which have shaped every day, modern life. Post COVID-19, it is the efforts of innovation leaders which be pivotal to bringing profit with a purpose.

This article is adapted from an article in the California Management Review  ( by the authors.



Director of Insights
The Conference Board

John Metselaar

Economy, Strategy & Finance Center Leader, Europe
The Conference Board


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