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Dealing with ambiguity

Updated: Apr 3

Have you started an international journey without a passport in your possession?
Have you walked into a mall without an idea of what you want to buy?
Are you worried about starting on a new project that you have never done before?
If you answered “YES” to the above questions, you might be someone who has tolerance for ambiguity. Or do you?

Many times Leaders stare eye-to-eye at ambiguity. You are given a team to work with, but you are unsure if they are the best people to deliver to your client. You might be frustrated with your job and are pondering whether to seek another role in the same company or explore opportunities outside the company.

Some leaders can handle ambiguity more adeptly than others. Some prefer to take a proven path and completely avoid the ambiguous situation.

A Business Leader was faced with a very peculiar situation. He had a problematic situation in his team and was dealing with the situation through his personal intervention. While sharing his problems with the HR Head, he was introduced to a potential solution and an external agency that can help with the situation. However, the Business Leader was not sure how to proceed. He spoke to the HR Head multiple times to validate the solution proposed and the background of the external agency. This continued for several weeks with the Business Leader continuing to be under stress as the problem has not gone and a potential solution is not taken forward. He wanted absolute clarity that the solution will solve his problems and the external agency will do a good job. His anxiety led to indecision and as a result the project suffered.

The worst case scenario in the case above is that the Business Leader could have taken a wrong call about the solution or the agency or both. It was a potential solution and not a sure shot at solving the problem. But then, the Business Leader could have taken an approach to run an experiment and see if the problem can be solved or not. He could talk to his peers to find out how they solved similar issues. He could have asked the external agency to provide references of past work they have done. Still, until you step into the water, you don’t know if its cold or hot.

Most people prefer stability and predictability. But we can’t really avoid ambiguous situations. Can we always take evasive action? Is there a way to deal with ambiguity?

How does an entrepreneur start a company without knowing that it would be a successful venture?
How can you deliver a project successfully when you have no experience doing similar work before?

Leaders that cannot deal with ambiguity, typically have “fear of the unknown” syndrome. And that fear is a big one because nobody wants to fail.

How can we learn from Leaders who have the ability to deal with ambiguity?

Question the status quo

This is the way things are in the company. Lets just follow the process. Lets do what the boss asked us to do. Aren’t these typical work styles.

Questioning the status quo, doesn’t make you a rebel. Instead, it allows you to learn more about why something is happening. It helps you understand the rationale behind a process or an approval mechanism. By doing that, you have information in your hands to see if what you learnt is valid and relevant for today’s work. If not, you have a reason to change for a better experience.

Open Attitude

A Leader by virtue of the positional power, often tends to “tell” others what to do and feedback is given to the team based on what they should have done. Can the leader also receive inputs and feedback from others in the team. It requires a huge “letting go” from the Leader.

From work context, a Leader has to look at what is known to the customer (e.g. scope) and what is known to the team (e.g. deadlines). In a gradual manner, how can the unknowns (e.g. assumptions, behavioural patterns) be reduced and thereby bringing more clarity on what this piece of work will deliver. When a leader is more open, the team feels engaged and becomes more productive.

Draw wisdom of the crowd

When you develop an open attitude, the most easiest thing to do is to lay out all information about work, customers and expectations as transparently as possible in front of the team. Each member of the team can contribute to addressing the situation from their perspective which in all cases is very different from the Leader’s perspective. Take all inputs from the team and help yourselves with a decision to reduce ambiguity. Atleast it’s a way forward that many people contributed to and not just yours.

Explore and experiment

The situation can be so tricky and the inputs received may not be convincing at all. Rather than live with the problem, be open to try out something that can alleviate your problems. Geert Hofstede’s research says that teams that can deal with ambiguity and uncertainty are usually creative and bring in a culture of “lets try this and see if it helps us”. If it doesn’t, well, you know it doesn’t and learn from that experience. The key is to keep trying and learn from each experience and eventually reduce the ambiguity.

Risk Mitigation vs Risk Avoidance

Accept the fact that not all situations can be avoided. Sometimes Murphy’s laws come into play. A leader that focuses on reducing the risk impact rather than avoiding the risk completely will be able to break down the situation into smaller chunks and try to solve the smaller chunks. There could be certain chunks that are never addressed. Its OK. In most cases, Pareto’s rule of 80-20 will come in handy. You will be able to control 80% of the causes of ambiguity in your project and the remaining 20% just need to be managed.

In summary, develop a curious mind to deal with ambiguity, don’t fret about the worst case scenario, be open, don’t hesitate to seek help and don’t burn yourselves trying to solve “all” problems.

Any other thoughts? Feel free to connect with me to share your thoughts.


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