Dealing with ambiguity

I have had several conversations recently with my clients who are asking: “How do I deal with ambiguity?” Some seem to find it easier or more comfortable than others.
This article looks at which skills you need, and provides some tips and research to help you deal with ambiguity.

Dealing with ambiguity

Defining ambiguity

Some definitions of ambiguity:

State of having more than one possible meaning
State of being difficult to understand or explain because of involving many different aspects
From 1520s Latin word ambiguus “having double meaning, shifting, changeable, doubtful”

The first reference of living with ambiguity actually dates back to about 1400, so it’s not just a recent phenomenon!

At work, ambiguity is likely to look like:

  • Lack of direction / different directions / conflicting directions
  • Lack of control, particularly when working within matrix structures
  • The challenge of integrating different points of view e.g. cultural, local versus global, function versus business unit
  • Lack of past experience e.g. technology is changing all the time and is often completely new, not just version upgrades. Or when entering new markets.  Or if the industry you’re in is going through fundamental change
  • Many unknowns, so you have to make decisions with a lack of information

However – when you have the ability to solve ambiguous problems, it can provide a source of significant business growth. You could get there whilst your competitors can’t.

Capitalising on complexity  

Key insights from a study of 1,500 CEOs and senior public sector leaders from 60 countries and 33 industries by the Creativity Research Unit in conjunction with IBM (2010).

Senior leaders see complexity as the biggest challenge they confront, with creativity as the single most important leadership competency for seeking a path through this complexity. Therefore, it is essential to create an environment that enables creativity.

The less a company liked uncertainty, the more likely they were to try to force a decision or closure, and the less likely they were to be innovative.

The research showed more positive results when there was a climate of:

  1. Increased levels of local empowerment
  2. Focus more on consumer needs rather technical needs when driving innovation
  3. Approaching, rather than avoiding, ambiguous innovation projects (this was influenced mostly by reducing conflict and increasing levels of risk-taking and ‘idea time’)

Find out more

“The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.”
Bertrand Russell

Skills required to deal with ambiguity

Here are my thoughts on the skills required to deal with ambiguity – do you agree?

Role model and actively encourage others to experiment, take risks and make mistakes. A breakthrough won’t come from doing things in the same way – sometimes it pays to be disruptive. Challenge the status quo.

Imagine you were moving into this business for the first time and you had no legacy culture, structure and processes – what would you do?  Then when you know this, how can you break through the barriers that do currently exist to grab the opportunities (before someone else does)?

Notice and listen to your intuition. People often ignore this to focus on the purely rational, yet ‘gut feel’ is often where insight lies.

Emergent thinking
People can have the tendency to close things down too quickly, especially when pushed for time or if they are feeling under pressure from volume of work. Instead, be less concerned about time/your To Do list and allow your thoughts  and the thoughts of others to emerge. See my article on Time to Think for more on this.

While divergent views and disagreements may feel as though they make life more difficult, value diversity – it will pay off. Collect other people’s views, be open to different points of view, and work through the issue in a collaborative way to challenge your own assumptions and reach a breakthrough solution. This links to my article about the leadership agility compass.

Who do you know who thinks very differently to you? Find the creative thinkers within the organisation and bring them into the core of running your business with you and your team.

Recognise that sometimes you will have to make a decision even if you don’t have all the facts. Balance the need for data gathering and due diligence with the ability to analyse the data you have got. Neither wait until you can collect all the data, nor rush to make a decision irresponsibly.

As long as you have a clear vision and a set of beliefs to guide you, you will be able to use these to provide the direction for yourself and others.

Evolving objectives
Be comfortable working with ill-defined objectives that may change over time, particularly when you are going into new markets or areas of work that you haven’t done before.

Strategy nowadays often develops over time in order to be responsive to the evolving environment – no longer is it possible to plan years ahead.

In an increasingly complex world, simplify as much as you can. This could include reducing layers of approval and/or simplifying processes – ruthlessly cut out anything that is not adding enough value, especially if it is slowing you down too much.

Don’t be hierarchical. Encourage ideas and discussion with other people, irrespective of their level of seniority. Make it safe for them to bring ‘wacky’ ideas or ideas that they haven’t fully thought through, and work co-creatively to allow the idea to take shape. Allow the time for this  (called “idea time” in the IBM/CRU research mentioned above).

Keeping Things Open / Holding the space
You can’t necessarily do things sequentially and close one activity before opening another. Often, you may be required to hold several activities open at once to allow for thought, debate, and gathering of data. This will better enable you to integrate to achieve a break-through or more significant result – a key leadership role.

Tips for dealing with ambiguity

  • Learn that ‘failure’ is an opportunity to grow  (and that failure is if you don’t learn from a mistake rather than the mistake per se)
  • See ambiguity as an opportunity to be creative and innovative, not a threat (especially because you may not have that freedom in other aspects of your work)
  • Try to hold your thinking space open for longer. It’s good to analyse and get facts, but don’t force a decision or jump to a narrow conclusion.
  • Develop resilience, as explained in my recent article on resilience and stress
  • Take intelligent risks. Look at your options, consult other people, take the right amount of time to think it through, then use your judgement to make a decision
  • Have the self-esteem to trust your judgement, and know when to seek guidance from others

“Take advantage of the ambiguity in the world. Look at something and think what else it might be.”
Roger von Oech

What will you do today?

In conclusion, what will you do today to take advantage of your world? What will you start, stop, continue?

Who can you learn from or collaborate with to develop your thinking?

Remember – ambiguity can lead to great things. Enjoy!

Please share this article with anyone you know who might find it interesting, and let me know if you’d like help to deal with ambiguity.

Next month, we look at managing your energy, not your time.