Why is it that we discuss our need to “deal with ambiguity?” Ambiguity is approached with a similar level of disdain as we have for garbage – “we’ve got a lot of ambiguity – can someone take care of it?” Ambiguity should not be seen as a negative, rather it is truly empowering.
Ambiguity is a “grown-up” sandbox. As children we were literally given a box of sand and left to our own devices. Think about it, there were no instructions, but we still built amazing things. From mystical castles to major excavation projects, the sandbox gave us freedom to create and to try new approaches.
Ambiguity in the office is similar. You are assigned a task with limited definition – bring your product to a new marketplace, meet your earnings target – and with a wide open solution space. This ambiguity – much like the sandbox – gives us freedom to develop our own solution. We are empowered to define the problem for ourselves, identify the critical questions that, when answered, will meet our objective, and establish and follow our own plan for execution.
Ambiguity allows for discovery and development. If a leader provides step-by-step instructions to meet an objective, ambiguity would be diminished and the goal could be reached faster, but at what cost? Where could that leader have invested their time? What improvements to our processes do we miss because we are not open to alternatives?
When we lead with ambiguity, we enable teams to own, to create, and to surprise. By providing a clear vision, but not a specific set of actions, we avoid micro-managing or resurrecting mediocre approaches. This requires us to reset expectations – projects may take longer or may lead to an unforeseen solution – but, we are developing our abilities to solve problems.
“Roadblocks” are good things. Ambiguity will drive teams into “roadblocks” – this is a given. “Roadblocks” are those places where the answer is unclear and where next steps are too many or few. But, rather than an impasse, these “roadblocks” create opportunities for us to collaborate.
A “roadblock” gives us a near-term problem to solve, where we can roll-up our sleeves and brainstorm a path forward together – because individually we do not know how to solve it. To resolve a “roadblock,” leaders and teams must work together on a level playing field – or incorporate external perspectives and guidance – to define and align on a path forward.
Recently, Celanese communicated a clear vision and mission for what we aspire to be. In that communication we introduced our organization to our core values to reach ambitious long-term goals. However, there is no defined path forward. We find ourselves now with ambiguity, but with the power to fill in the gaps ourselves, to explore the options we have, and to discover our own solutions to reach our future.
Resources for Ambiguity
- Lominger’s For Your Improvement: A Guide for Development and Coaching offers an excellent definition on what an individual capable of “dealing with ambiguity” looks like and also offers a few suggestions to increase one’s tolerance for ambiguity. Your HR colleagues may have a copy for you to review.
- Colin Shaw, CEO of Beyond Philosophy, offers a list of 10 tips for personally managing ambiguity in his LinkedIn article – “Dealing with Ambiguity – The New Business Imperative.”
- McKinsey & Company published “Strategy Under Uncertainty” in a June 2000 issue of the McKinsey Quarterly. The article provides ways to measure and address ambiguity and uncertainty in decision making.
- Roger Martin at the Rotman School of Management offers his perspective on using a strategic approach to manage uncertainty in his Harvard Business Review post – “Placing Strategic Bets in the Face of Uncertainty.”