The Absence of Ambidexterity

In the mid-1990s, USA Today’s readership was declining. It rebounded when the company became ambidextrous. Today, readership is declining. USA Today’s ups and downs raises a few questions. Why are ambidextrous organizations so rare in Western cultures? And why does right-handed planning generally prevail in the West?

USA Today celebrates its 30th birthday this year. In its first decade, the paper was characterized by growth through innovation. By 1982, the paper turned its first profit. But by 1995 readership was falling steadily. USA Today President Tom Curley tapped Lorraine Cichowski to fix the problem. She set up a skunk works, bringing in people from outside USA Today and housing them on a different floor from the newspaper. Cichowski built a highly collaborative culture. But initial results were disappointing.

The problem was Cichowski’s team was isolated. Curley addressed the problem, integrating the new unit with his senior executive team. Performance immediately improved. However, several senior executives resisted the innovations. Curley stood by Cichowski and over the next five years dismissed 40 percent of his senior team. In so doing, he turned USA Today into what is called an ambidextrous organization.

Charles O’Reilly III and Michael L. Tushman developed the idea of ambidextrous organizations.1 Professors at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford and Harvard Business School, respectively, they recognize executives face two challenges – exploring new opportunities while exploiting existing capabilities. Organizational ambidexterity is being equally adept at doing both, just as human ambidexterity is being equally adept at using both appendages, such as both hands. At USA Today, Cichowski’s team explored innovative opportunities. The senior team exploited existing capabilities. Working together, they made USA Today an ambidextrous organization.

Their story doesn’t however explain the general absence of ambidextrous organizations in Western cultures. Most companies in the West are biased toward right-handed planning.2 Since the brain’s left hemisphere controls the body’s right side, right-handed planning reveals a bias for left-hemisphere thinking. But what makes organizations innovative is including left-handed planners, writes Henry Mintzberg, “creative thinkers who open up the strategy making process, and are more inclined toward the intuitive processes identified with the brain’s right hemisphere.” So what accounts for the West’s right-handed bias? You don’t see such a bias in ancient times or even in the Bible.

The Bible is pretty evenhanded. For instance, long life is in Wisdom’s right hand; riches and honor are in her left hand (Prov. 3:16). Ehud, a judge of Israel and a mighty warrior, was left-handed (Judges 3:15-21). So were 700 left-handed warriors with outstanding ability (Judges 20:16). The best bowmen were ambidextrous (I Chr. 12:2). The mother of the sons of Zebedee requested that one of her sons sit on Jesus’ right while the other sit on his left. The right hand of God often refers to power and honor, but in the Greek language, the left often related to a good reputation.

God does separate the sheep and goats in the final judgment, with the sheep on his right hand and the goats on the left (Mt. 25). Neuroscience might however add a layer to our understanding of this passage. Neuroimaging reveals that danger is more likely to be apprehended by the left visual field, since the right hemisphere is more vigilant than the left. The goats are a metaphor for the godless. The passage might be reminding us that only God is ultimately able to apprehend good and evil. He’ll deal with the danger of the godless. Scripture doesn’t seem to show an advantage to being left or right-handed.

What then accounts for the Western bias for right-handed planning? Many linguistic theorists believe the Western bias for left hemisphere thinking comes from the Enlightenment’s bias for language and reason (left-hemisphere functions) over metaphor and imagination (right-hemisphere functions). C. S. Lewis titled his most penetrating analysis of this problem The Discarded Image. Science seems to support Lewis. Neuroimaging reveals the right and left hemispheres compete with each another, each trying to “get in first” to take charge of the thinking process.3 If the right gets in first, leading with metaphor, it includes the left. If the left hemisphere launches the process, with words instead of metaphor, it discards the right. The Western Enlightenment starts with words. This bias, played out over the last three centuries, seems to explain the absence of ambidextrous organizations in Western cultures. But that’s not all.

The prejudices of the verbal left hemisphere might explain why 90 percent of the Western world’s population is right-handed. Only ten percent is left-handed, and, according to neuroimaging, 70 percent of these left-handed people have their language mediated by the left hemisphere (the right should be doing it). The other 30 percent can either mediate language with both hemispheres or mediate language with the right hemisphere – evidence of a society prejudiced toward the verbal left hemisphere.4 This prejudice might explain why educators until recently forced school-age left-handers to write right-handed. It might also account for why only one percent of Western world’s population is ambidextrous. It might even explain the last decade at USA Today.

The last ten years at USA Today have been one of decline, with competitive surges by The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, changing reader habits, and industry-wide economic pressures. Innovation hasn’t been as apparent. Are right-hemisphere thinkers absent from the leadership team? Or is the paper’s senior executive team still ambidextrous, as it was when Lorraine Cichowski’s team had a seat at the table? The lesson is ambidextrous organizations are difficult to create but even more difficult to sustain. It’s not an impossible task however. Next week we’ll see how they are created as well as what is required to sustain them. Stay tuned.

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1 Charles A. O’Reilly III and Michael L. Tushman, “The Ambidextrous Organization,” Harvard Business Review, April 2004.
2 Henry Mintzberg, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), p. 393.
3 Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010)
4 Kenneth M. Heilman, Creativity and the Brain (New York: Psychology Press, 2005), pp. 73-74.

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8 Comments

  1. All to often the creative person is left out of
    the conversation. To many of the theologians
    have dominated the church and not enough artists have been heard. In our church some of the greatest innovators have been in sales,the arts,and new believers.
    Thank God for both dreamers and doers.

  2. Bob, how right you are! Where you & I are in the great Northeast, salesmen aren’t respected because they’re “worldly”, arts people are suspicious outliers, and new believers “just don’t know anything”. We only give credit to new believers for being “lively” with “enthusiasm” but we dare not let them speak up because they don’t know the lingo yet, they don’t know The Words, they don’t know The Truth like the rest of us grizzled veterans. What do they really Not Know? Our pessimism shrouded in word-crafted coffins housing our once vibrant experience of faith. They Only Know the vibrant colors of right-hemisphere experience but we demand that they know the dry plywood blandness of left-hemisphere scaffolding. And we work our hardest to kill that right-hemisphere chaos in cemetery, errr, sorry: seminary, where we put that chaos in proper order. Well, carved marble is nicely in order, isn’t it?

  3. I remember years ago, I enjoyed doing dramatic monologues as sermons. I did my best to creatively enter the mind of a “Biblical” character and bring his message as if I was he. usually it would invovle costume and make up as I tried to look the part. I think people responded well to the monologues. It was a welcomed addition to the “dry plywood blandness of left-handed hemisphere scaffolding.” But as usually happens in congregations, some of the people did not welcome it. It became one of the many little things that they viewed as wrong with my ministry. They found it offensive when the pastored dressed in a “Halloween costume” to bring the Word of God.
    Left handed scaffolding (am I getting the left and right confused?) is easy to control. Like painting by the numbers, you can ususally get an expected result, but the result is never as satisfying as the creative original.
    My wife is much more creative than I, especially musically. She once asked if I could hear music in my head. I had no idea what she was talking about. Apparently, when she hears a melody in her head, she can go back and make harmonies and parts for different instruments in her head and hear in her head what they sound like. Me on the otherhand, I see a staff of music and with a great deal of labor I can re-create from the staff the music using an instrument. For her the music just flows. That kind of creativity cannot be controlled by others. If they cannot control something, most people choose to avoid or kill it. My guess is that that is a major inherant problem in becoming ambidextrous as a movement or as an institution.

  4. David:

    In 1947 the USAF enlisted Lockheed to created an innovative aircraft – a jet fighter. Lockheed took several promising engineers and set them apart from the “left brained” company engineers (housed them near a stinky factory, in fact). The secretive group had to disguise their work – hence, a skunk works.

    Albert Einstein said you cannot solve a problem using the same mind that created it. Skunk works recognize this dynamic. Since Lockheed’s first group, there have been over 1,000 skunk works, creating such innovations as the computer mouse. At one time, GE spent over one billion dollars annually on various skunk works.

  5. MIke,

    Your thoughts are provocative and sound.

    A factor that occurred around the turn of the last century in the Western world is that we moved from a world of exploration to a world of management as the norm for organization operation. In that, the “This is the way it is” mindset prevaled over the “what if” mindset of the previous era. Lots of reasons for that change, but the result is the metaphor of management overpowered the metaphor of exploration as the guiding philosophy for the last century. With that we nave order and replication and we lose discovery and imagination.

    I believe we are entering a new era of exploration as we discover once again that we not only do not know everything, but also cannot control everything as we falsely assumed we could.

    Dwight

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