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22 Dec 2014

Dealing with Ambiguity

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Apocalyptic Decision Making

Dealing with ambiguity means relying on people more than computers.

Dealing with ambiguity means people who are mentally and emotionally comfortable with it are more the most important assets.

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.

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6 Responses

  1. So very important, Mike!! I heard a phrase at a conference, from someone who’s name I cannot remember, that problem solvers MUST “Embrace Ambiguity” – not just acknowledge its existence but welcome it in order to get an optimized outcome. Regularly when discussing problem solving, I always point out three thoughts: (1) embrace ambiguity, (2) regularly self-assess, and (3) accept that the process will include “looping back” to a previous step as a result of the self-assessment (I’d suggest that the probability of always making correct choices / decisions in the problem solving process is nil). With regard to ambiguity, the “S” in my OSCAR personal problem solving procedure is for Speed Bumps: a separate step acknowledging and listing the topics that need consideration (http://johncbennettjr.com ) in order to optimize the outcome(s) of the effort!!!

    1. Mike Lehr

      I’m pleased you agree, John. I was talking to a retired sociologist about ten years ago. She felt that culturally our desire to schedule and have purpose for every hour of our children’s days have instilled a natural aversion to uncertainty, ambiguity, etc. She was 85 at the time and had noticed this in her work with children over the decades. She claimed they had less and less unstructured free time. Even sports or games, she claimed, had too much structure and rules. It was the program or the referee who determined right and wrong. Do you have any thoughts or views on this from your experience?

      1. My experience is with my university students of course. While they never actually said the words, very often they would say something they meant to indicate “tell us what we need to learn to be successful.” They had interpreted their K-12 teachers’ emphasis on facts and repeating what the teacher did to indicate there were these magic things that we all that was needed for success – AND COLLEGE FACULTY WOULD DO THE SAME… Sadly, some did, reinforcing their belief. As a result, they’d think the example problems in textbook represented all they needed to be able to do; they couldn’t even swap given input and requested output in these examples; they asked how many questions on the test, I guess to figure which questions to study for; …

        I frequently tried to get them thinking by asking them if they would have to do “homework” questions on their jobs. And, if yes, when? Sadly, many expected that would be most of their jobs. When we’d explore the efforts getting to the HW problem from the situation encountered and the many steps from the HW outcome to addressing the situation encountered, I know many felt I was wrong or trying to scare them. In spite of my and others’ best efforts, ambiguity was never on their radar…

        1. Mike Lehr

          Thank you for relating your experience on this, John. Were course surveys done too? I sometimes wonder whether education is becoming more of a “fill in the blanks” type of endeavor. Part of the forces moving it in this direction is the potential need to score high on these surveys. If students don’t feel you are teaching them right, they could score you low. For instance, if you don’t present things in a PowerPoint format or do some of the things you mention, I could see students saying you aren’t teaching well. This isn’t new of course (except for the PowerPoint) as I remember some of this from my college days. It seems there is a difference between getting a good grade and learning something. One does not necessarily mean the other. It’s something to ponder though.

          Again, thank you for your thoughts. I trust you are enjoying your holidays.

          1. The student ratings were always bi ideal: those who valued my efforts to help them develop effective learning and effective problem solving skills / habits android those who never bought in. Most rewarding were the notes as graduation approached thanking me – some that I wasn’t even aware I had reached them!!!

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