THE AMBIDEXTERITY PRINCIPLE: How Every Great Leader, Strategist, and Team Creates Win-Win Solutions


“Human progress greatly depends on our ability to create and adopt win-win solutions.” Rod King



Harry S. Truman, the 33rd President of the United States, once said:

 Give me a one-handed economist! All my economists say, ''On the one hand, on the other [hand].''”

If I may literally interpret Truman’s quote, Truman was saying that economists tend to offer two unipolar solutions that apparently contradict each other. What Truman really wanted was a one-handed economist who would provide a bipolar solution with zero trade-off.

In general, there are two main categories of winning solutions: unipolar (trade-off) and bipolar (zero trade-off) solutions. A unipole or unipolar solution is based on a paradigm of “either/or” or “win-lose” while a bipole or bipolar solution is based on a paradigm of “both/and” or “win-win.” To Truman, those two-handed economists with contradictory unipolar solutions appeared indecisive: they presented a unipolar strategy with a trade-off on each hand rather than a bipolar strategy with zero trade-off on just one hand. The diagram below visually summarizes a typology of winning solutions as well as presents a roadmap for applying the Ambidexterity Principle.

Closer examination of the above diagram reveals that Truman’s “two-handed economists” were using a unidexterity principle while offering two unacceptable unipolar solutions. Those two-handed economists presented two contradictory solutions but omitted the “win-win” solution that resolved the inherent conflict, contradiction, or trade-offs. Apparently, Truman’s two-handed economists did not apply the Ambidexterity Principle.

But, what is the Ambidexterity Principle? In simple terms, the Ambidexterity Principle refers to a systematic process or strategy for creating a win-win solution especially by eliminating contradictions, conflicts, or trade-offs. Instead of the approach of “My Way or Your Way,” the Ambidexterity Principle offers a third alternative of “Our OTHER Way.” The Ambidexterity Principle can be used by one-handed professionals as well as by two-handed professionals including economists. In fact, the Ambidexterity Principle is used tacitly and explicitly in all walks of life to create win-win solutions.

The Ambidexterity Principle is strongly related to Continuous Problem Solving, Improvement, and Innovation as well as Darwin’s Theory and Principle of Evolution. Each of the aforementioned process involves the reduction of trade-off over time. The ideal win-win solution, also known as the Ideal Final Result (IFR), occurs when a system’s trade-off is zero, that is, the system has infinite advantage (delight or benefit) and zero disadvantage (pain or cost). Whereas a real-life win-win solution has compromises such as in secondary and tertiary trade-offs, an ideal win-win solution has no compromise or trade-offAn ideal win-win solution is therefore utopic. Like in the concept of infinity or the North Star, an ideal win-win solution is an ideal to be relentlessly pursued but can never be attained in real life. Seeking an ideal win-win solution simply involves the pursuit of perfection.

Looking at the history of Ambidextrous Thinking, the Ambidexterity Principle is evident in Socratic Dialectic which usually involves the consideration of pros (thesis) and cons (anti-thesis) as well as synthesis of an issue. Benjamin Franklin was also a proponent of the Ambidexterity Principle and developed a unique pros-and-cons method for eliminating trade-offs while creating a win-win solution in decision-making. Sigmund Freud's Pleasure-Pain Principle is another formulation of the Ambidexterity Principle especially in the context of Psychoanalysis. Further, Karl Marx implicitly talks about the Ambidexterity Principle in his concept of “Dialectical Materialism.” Finally, Genrich Altshuller, in his methodology of TRIZ, discovered that the Ambidexterity Principle of achieving zero contradiction or Ideal Final Result is the common factor in highly inventive products, patents, and technical solutions. The essence of the foregoing comments is that the Ambidexterity Principle underlies human progress in every sphere of life.

Below is a list of selected business books that significantly discuss the Ambidexterity Principle.

The Ambidexterity Principle may be ubiquitous, but is there any urgent need for applying the Ambidextrous Principle to business? The resounding answer is, “Yes!” The Ambidextrous Principle must continuously be applied to matured businesses as well as startups in space and time. Do allow me to explain.

For the lifecycle of a product and business model, it is usual to apply Michael Porter’s unidextrous or one-handed strategy such as in high differentiation or low cost. (It’s important to note that W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne’s approach of Blue Ocean strategy or Value Innovation advocates application of the Ambidexterity Principle that resolves the trade-off between high differentiation and low cost.) However, as a product, market, or an industry matures or as a blue ocean turns red, competition intensifies and a product’s profit margin reduces. A matured product is also at great threat from disruptively innovative products from startups or new entrants. So how can a business with a matured product or business model best protect itself?

During the matured or red ocean phase of a product, a business places emphasis on continuous improvement and sustaining innovation rather than disruptive and radical innovation. Nevertheless, technological and/or business model innovation especially by new entrants combined with changes in customers' preferences could make obsolete the cash cow (existing and highly profitable matured product) of a business. If such a business has a unidextrous strategy, then its matured product may be creatively destroyed, that is, innovatively disrupted to the point of obsolescence. The graveyard of recently disrupted incumbents include Borders, Blockbuster, and KodakSo, once again, how can a business with a matured product or business model best protect itself?

Today, businesses are increasingly realizing that the lifecycle of products and business models as well as “blue oceans” is getting shorter and shorter especially as industry boundaries and markets become more fluid in a globalized world. Rita Gunther McGrath notes that businesses and industries are now in the Age of Transient (Competitive) Advantage rather than Sustainable Competitive Advantage. Consequently, to meet the goal of short-term profitability, businesses must implement a continuous improvement and incremental innovation program to ‘exploit’ matured products and business models on the one hand. On the other hand, to meet the goal of medium and long-term profitability, businesses must launch a continuous (disruptive) innovation program to create or ‘explore’ new products/business models. In short, businesses must constantly apply the Ambidexterity Principle to create win-win solutions over time; this applies to startups as well as growing and matured businesses. From a strategy perspective, businesses must routinely use an Ambidextrous Strategy to maintain stability (in core business models) while invigorating change and innovation (in peripheral or emergent business models).

Having talked about the need for continuously using the Ambidexterity Principle, one can consider the so-called million dollar question: “How does one simply and rapidly apply the Ambidexterity Principle at strategic, tactical, and operational levels?”

Well, for over 25 years, I’ve been studying use of the Ambidexterity Principle in all spheres of life: from Economics, Regional Development Strategy, and Politics through Engineering and Product Innovation to Business Strategy, Business Modeling, and Performance Management. Although the Ambidexterity Principle can easily be summarized as the achievement of a “win-win solution,” the process for achieving such as an outcome is usually presented textually; visual templates hardly exist that can be repeatedly used to achieve win-win solutions everywhere. Consequently, the achievement of win-win solutions is mostly rhetorical and difficult to repeatedly achieve in practice.

Recently, I decided to put together a suite of visual tools that can be used to systematically apply the Ambidexterity Principle while achieving win-win solutions. The following weblink leads to a presentation that contains a visual toolkit for rapidly applying the Ambidexterity Principle:

The above presentation generously draws from the content of Martin Reeves et al’s book, “Your Strategy Needs a Strategy.” Reeves et al’s book (“Your Strategy Needs a Strategy” or “YSNS”) is the best material that I’ve come across regarding understanding and application of the Ambidexterity Principle especially to develop of Ambidextrous Leadership and Strategy. I took the liberty of translating into visual tools the great ideas in the YSNS book since the book focuses on presenting a unified strategy framework (“Strategy Palette”) rather than a toolkit for formulating, executing, and managing an Ambidextrous Strategy as well as Ambidextrous Business Model Portfolio. The primary customer for the YSNS book is a business leader especially of a large corporation. I wanted to develop a visual toolkit for startups as well as established organizations.

For an everyday as well as a team-based approach to applying the Ambidexterity Principle, I’d suggest using “The 3rd Alternative” by the late Stephen Covey together with the Visual Tools for Ambidextrous Leaders and Growth Strategists. Although Covey covered the Ambidexterity Principle - as Habit 4 (Think Win-Win) and Habit 6 (Synergy) in his classic book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” – he consolidates and expands his insights in his book, “The 3rd Alternative.” I immensely enjoyed reading Covey’s book.

The Ambidexterity Principle is everywhere. Pursuit and achievement of the Ambidexterity Principle could be considered as humanity’s purpose on earth. To paraphrase the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, I’d say: “All Life is About Mastering the Ambidexterity Principle.” And with that cryptic message, I’ll leave you to explore as well as exploit the art, science, and engineering of the Ambidexterity Principle.

But, one more thing ... Given our increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environment, win-lose solutions are like taking two-steps forward and one step backward. In win-lose solutions, the sophistication of our thinking does not match the complexity of our environment. The world needs better solutions, the world needs win-win solutions more than ever before, the world needs more ideal solutions. So, let’s continuously share our ideas, experiences, and insights on the Ambidexterity Principle as well as on Ambidextrous Organizations, Strategy, and Leadership. In the meantime, I wish you the achievement of many, many win-win solutions.

Finally, let’s not forget to constantly shift our paradigm from “My way or your way” to “Our way” especially in teams of rivals. Our world would be a much better place if we live our lives according to the Ambidexterity Principle.

What do you think?



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