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"Managing Ambiguity" is overrated

We do not place importance on ‘ambiguity’ in our personal lives as much as we do in our professional relationships. We don’t favor one sibling over another or one child over another because of their ability to manage ambiguity. Neither does our decision hinge on this trait about friends or neighbors. Why not?


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Unmesh Tambwekar

a year ago | 3 min read

In our personal lives — with spouse, siblings, children, extended family members, significant others — we don’t favor one sibling over another or one child over another because of their ability to manage ambiguity. Neither does our decision hinge on this trait about friends or neighbors. Why not? Because we are surrounded by ambiguity. We take it for granted; As a table stake.

In professional settings, however, this attribute garners immediate attention and importance. Read most job descriptions and you will see at least one or more points highlighting the importance of “dealing with ambiguity,” or being comfortable “managing” ambiguous situations. Or in peer reviews and feedback sessions, there is often mention of “….In the coming year, I hope to see you picking up projects that are bigger, more ambiguous ….blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…”

How can we manage these types of situations better? What activities or actions, which over time with repetition, can help make this a part of our subconscious problem solving tool kit? How do we orient our mindset to acknowledge ambiguity as just another task on our daily “to-do” list, without getting flustered? Here is my perspective.

Stepping Back

Ambiguity and Uncertainty are sometimes used interchangeably. However, there are differences, if we disaggregate into two key variables — Information availability and Challenge or Situation — to ring fence into three classifications. See exhibit below.

  • “Just Do It.” Initiatives where the Situation is known and the Information is known. There is prior history and therefore existing knowledge (tribal or documented) about what to do — activities, people responsible, groups required to help resolve etc. These are no-brainers and happy path.
  • Skepticism / Uncertainty. Situation is known, however, the Information, the sources, and data attributes are unknown. Also, a known Situation is one where you may have faced a similar scenario but in a different organization, time, geography, requiring deeper analysis to identify the key levers.
  • Ambiguity. Both Situation and Information are unknown and unavailable. British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, is an example of an unprecedented scenario. There are other instances: 2008 financial crisis, even the January 6th Capitol Hill insurrection in the United States.
Exhibit 1: Situational Scenarios

So how do we manage such unprecedented scenarios? Exhibit 2 below, shares an approach that starts with the “Voice of the customer,” establishes a vision of success, encourages broad-based ideation followed by attentive listening, experimenting with the ideas to test and learn fast, and finally correlating the results of the experiments from ideas back to the vision.

Exhibit 2: An approach to ambiguity

Food for thought

Establish vision for success. Vision statement is a guiding light and a steering wheel for any organization or group responsible for dealing with an ambiguous challenge. It helps establish guardrails. End customers, partners, internal stakeholders all provide inputs that shape the vision. Unlike goals and objectives, which can change from one initiative to the next, vision statements have more longevity and evolve every few years based on customer preferences, market dynamics, and business design.

Generate ideas and engage in active debate. Be creative; generate as many ideas as possible. Don’t worry how wild, unreasonable, or unrealistic they are. In Design Thinking this is called “Brainstorming alone; Then together.” Time-box this activity. If 15 minutes is reasonable, make it 10 and then add 5 if required. Most ideas (high volume, not always high quality) are created in the initial two-thirds of the allocated time. Carve out time to engage in active listening. This phase should focus on rigorously debating the facts and information related to each of the ideas. A lot of information may be anecdotal given the unknown nature. And that is fine, so long as it is relevant and useful.

Experiment and track results. After having debated and disagreed on some ideas and agreed on other, move ahead by agreeing to support and nurture some of the ideas by experimenting and testing them. This too should be time-boxed. The intent of these experiments should be to learn that which is unknown.

Correlate results back to vision. Some experiments and their outcomes may result in strong and direct correlation to the vision versus others. There is a balance that one must strike between the frequency of “experiments,” the lessons learned and the eventual dissemination of knowledge within the group, first, followed by the organization to help support and refine the business model. Besides skills building, as the approach is applied, the “ambiguous” projects or initiatives will shift into the “Just Do It” quadrant, which one would expect as an outcome.

Bottom Line

Anybody can apply the above steps (exhibit 2) solo or invite other stakeholders, as needed, thereby building this muscle. Managers and other leaders should reflect on what is meant by “ambiguity,” contextualize it in their space before asking for commitment from others and overselling it as some golden egg.

“I look for ambiguity when I’m writing (music) because life is ambiguous.”

Keith Richards — Musician, Songwriter of the Rolling Stones.

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Unmesh Tambwekar

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