Biology and Strategy: The Giraffe

Ambidexterity in the business world means simultaneously exploiting and exploring, or running and reinventing, a business. Animals have used this mechanism for millions of years to forage for food effectively, and they must consider the same essential trade-off that companies do: whether to exploit the current environment or to go beyond the current environment and explore the unknown.

Giraffes, for example, employ clear and distinct approaches for balancing this trade-off. When food is abundant, as it usually is in the wet season, they don’t need a targeted strategy—there’s plenty of low-hanging fruit. In the dry season, however, giraffes need an explicit strategy for how frequently and how far away they should search for food sources, since staying too long at one grove will reduce yield and leave them too hungry to find the next food source. On the other hand, spending too much time wandering around looking for food will also make them vulnerable to starvation. Businesses, too, need to balance exploiting and renewing their advantage, especially when their current source of advantage is threatened due to technological change or competition. “Low-hanging fruit” for businesses is scarcer than ever, and they need deliberate approaches to achieving ambidexterity.

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