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Columbia Business Monthly

Build and launch teams that can navigate uncharted waters of change

By Benjamin Dean

Change within organizations can be hard to accomplish under favorable conditions, even when a firm’s survival is at stake. One source estimated that 70% of all change initiatives fail, and that the main reason involves leaders rushing toward change without a focused, coherent plan. 

But even a well-planned initiative for change typically applies a traditional management approach that depends on centralized planning and top-down execution.

An entirely different approach to leading change allows initiatives to emerge more organically from multiple units within a firm. The goal of such an approach, especially for adapting, is to encourage creativity, experimentation and innovation from wherever best practices and superior knowledge may arise. This empowered approach emphasizes more decentralized structures, autonomous units and empowered leaders for greater responsiveness, adaptation and integration at every level. For firms seeking change through this approach, teams provide significant advantages.

Teams and teamwork inherently play an essential role in organizational change. Studies show that effective teamwork characteristically engages adaptive capacities, dynamic capabilities and integrative mechanisms that characterize real teams. Team members can fully use their diverse knowledge, skills and experience to perform interdependently and to problem-solve creatively. Organizations find that teams functioning autonomously can integrate effectively with other subunits and even with other firms. 

A clear trend affirms that more firms are using various types of organizational teams and team-based designs. Teams and teamwork represent a crucial way a firm can position itself to cope with unexpected threats, to meet ongoing adaptive challenges, and to seize new opportunities.

Even so, organizational teams with certain dynamic capabilities that comprise ambidexterity prove to be even more adaptive and successful. 

What exactly gives an ambidextrous firm or team such dynamic capabilities? Ambidexterity enables a firm to balance multiple competing demands, while it innovates effectively and still produces efficiently. Ambidexterity engages and integrates efforts at working simultaneously on a firm’s most essential adaptive tasks and aligning those efforts toward shared goals. Ambidexterity also enables firms to manage and resolve the resource and other trade-offs that will arise among units working on multiple tasks at the same time. Ambidextrous teams especially demonstrate creative abilities in discovering new knowledge and profitably applying that knowledge for innovative new products and services. Team ambidexterity thereby amplifies the already considerable potential of teams and teamwork. 

What tools can a firm use to build the ambidexterity of its teams? Among several tools, one employs new structural designs and processes among teams. 

A growing number of firms are also developing networks of teams, including highly integrated networks referred to as multiteam systems. A firm can also identify specific teams responsible for essential innovation activities, and then empower those teams to pass back and forth the ongoing tasks of exploring and implementing new knowledge. Or, teams may simultaneously work in parallel on those essential tasks of innovation. 

Firms can engage additional tools or mechanisms to support ambidexterity at the team level. Ambidextrous leaders can make internal and external boundaries more permeable to allow easier transfer and use of new information, and sharing of organizational learning and material resources. Similarly, human resource systems and incentives can enable more fluid memberships among teams to ensure the right talent can shift quickly and seamlessly wherever a firm most needs decentralized decision-making and adaptive problem-solving.

Ambidexterity thereby adds significantly to the dynamic capabilities of organizations and their teams. Firms that empower ambidextrous teamwork engage powerful tools for achieving change, adaptation and innovation. 

Valuable answers to even more questions are emerging through organizational studies focusing on ambidexterity. And the faculty at The Citadel are actively involved in studying how such dynamic capabilities can help firms and their teams adapt and succeed within rapidly changing business environments. 

Benjamin Dean earned a Ph.D. in organizational leadership and degrees in law, as well as senior professional certifications in human resources. He is an associate professor of management in the Tommy & Victoria Baker School of Business and a former department head at The Citadel in Charleston. He gained extensive international experience both in public and private sectors, and continues to consult and conduct professional seminars.