Dealing with ambiguity often occurs when doing things for the first time. The temptation is to make such events clearer than they really are. This is normal. It should alert us though that we are headed down a path of setting errant expectations. As a leader, it means not preparing our people well for changes.
To Nathan Bennett and G. James Lemoine (“What VUCA Really Means for You” [Harvard Business Review, January 2014 edition]), with ambiguity we know little about the situation and have little ability to predict outcomes of our actions. Ambiguity is one of the four horsemen of apocalyptic decision making because in the face of it we are likely to plan too narrowly. It is so easy to hedge our bets against one response. This brings disaster if we are wrong. It can also bring on a leadership crisis as we are forced to issue unexpected changes.
Thus, when dealing with ambiguity, our plans need to deal with a range of responses not one or a few. The responses are small. We do not commit the enterprise. They are tests. We learn. We adapt. We do so quickly. We test again. Again quickly, we learn and adapt. We keep going until the fog clears. As this happens, we commit more resources to successes. We take them from failures. We make bigger bets.
Bennett and Lemoine give examples of ambiguity as moving into new or growing markets and launching products outside core competencies. Working with new people and groups are examples too. This could be the result of joint ventures, mergers, acquisitions and consolidations. Ambiguity usually arises in creative works such as music and videos. It includes the web. People quickly copy successful ideas. This dilutes them. Pressure to find more is always there.
Generally, computers and data tend to be less helpful in dealing with ambiguity than with the other three horsemen. They are based on history, so their help is more with analyzing test results. It is not with projections. Human experience, people who are mentally and emotionally comfortable with ambiguity are the most important assets. It is why the U.S. military relies more on people than on computers when dealing with ambiguity.