Navigating Ambiguity

We are living in a difficult time, but ambiguity in business is nothing new. It is a constant in the creative process. Innovation requires covering new territory and breaking new ground. New ideas can take time to understand. Merriam Webster defines ambiguity as, “a word or expression that can be understood in two or more possible ways…”. The key is finding the understanding that best suits your customer or situation. In order to be successful in business you need a clear and captivating strategy. So how do you find clarity when the goal is unclear and the path is filled with uncertainty?

What Causes Ambiguity?

Ambiguity has many sources. Sometimes an individual or team can’t picture or describe what they need. It can be as a result of simply not knowing an answer. Maybe it’s a communication or organizational issue. No matter the cause, ambiguity needs to be understood, acted upon and even embraced. Let’s start with understanding it.

  1. Communication Issue Information is presented in a way that makes it difficult to understand the background, opportunities, expectations, scope and goals. Complexity makes defining the project and objectives difficult. Things just don’t make sense to one or both parties.
  2. Lack of Direction You get a new project. Basically it has a name and a deadline. There is lack of information, definition and clarity. There is no finite goal. As a designer I know all too well its very hard to start with a blank canvas. “Make it pretty” is not direction.
  3. Lack of Organization No clearly defined roles, policies, processes or procedures. No one knows what their role is, no one knows who’s in charge. There is no framework or pre-determined path to follow
  4. New Territory This is an uncharted course. Brand new. No one knows exactly how to proceed because no one has been here before. What worked yesterday may not work today. This can be a good thing.
  5. Diversity of Workforces Today’s workforce is full of different cultures, age groups and personalities. Words, gestures and phrases can have multiple meanings. It’s important to understand when and how and to use certain language and signals within context. When you do choose a gesture or phrase that’s misunderstood, be ready to explain your decision.

How do you Manage Ambiguity?

Now that we understand where it’s coming from, let’s talk about dealing with it. Ambiguity can be paralyzing. Don’t let it stop you in your tracks. Learning to recognize the cause is the first step. Once you know the source, you can move forward to a winning solution. Ambiguity can be frustrating, but you should consider embracing it. Here are some steps to help you.

  1. Have Good Communications Skills Ask good questions. Talk to people and try to understand the big picture and the details. Strive for clarity. Engage with others, build relationships. Make a connection. Learn more about communication here.
  2. Sometimes you need to let it go Let go of the idea that you can control every situation. The business world is getting more complex by the minute. Who could have predicted our current global circumstances? Control the things you can, and adjust to the things you can’t. Sometimes you have to fly a little blind until you find the answer.
  3. Know you will make mistakes It’s part of being decisive. Not all decisions are the right ones. Mistakes should be seen as growth opportunities. Be comfortable with that and move forward. If you are a manager be tolerant of mistakes in your direct reports. Build trust by giving people room to grow. However, if the same mistakes are made repeatedly thats a problem. Don’t mistake growth for incompetence.
  4. Be Flexible Be open to new ideas. Be willing to learn. Attack the problem from every angle. Don’t get paralyzed by lack of direction or bad instructions. Dig in and figure it out. Creativity thrives within constraints.
  5. Do your research The more you understand the less ambiguity exists. Find out all you can. Identify the problem, the expectations and the objectives. Ask good questions. Immerse yourself in the problem. This may come with some trial and error.
  6. Use Empathy Understand every point of view. Walk a mile in their shoes. Understanding varying points of view is invaluable in solving problems effectively. Empathy is also essential in helping you build relationships, lead teams and design better products. More on empathy here.
  7. Be Creative Easier said than done. But if you have a framework or a process, you can apply it to any situation. Ambiguity is part of creativity. Embrace it. Sometimes you can’t find the path because there isn’t one. So forge ahead. Use it as a moment to see things from a different perspective. Learn more about creativity here.
  8. Move Forward Take baby steps if you have to. Break the project into increments. Just get going. We use a sprint method. Pick a piece of the puzzle, set a goal for one week, regroup at the end of the week. Rinse and repeat. Uncertainty will begin to dissolve the deeper you push. You may discover more ambiguity along the way, but you can handle it.
  9. Develop Tolerance Recognize that there may be no cure for ambiguity. Developing a certain tolerance for uncertainty can be very useful. Stress, anxiety and confusion are all part of uncertainty. Developing a tolerance will make you more prepared to deal with risk and be better prepared to adapt and evolve.

Ambiguity can seem like a terrible thing when it shows up in business. It increases uncertainty, anxiety and confusion. It makes things feel more complex. But it happens too often to be ignored. If understood and acted upon ambiguity can become an asset. It unlocks creativity, develops perseverance and if approached correctly, it helps you keep your head in a crisis. So embrace the unknown. Be prepared and get comfortable with uncertainty.

Links & References

  1. Overcome Ambiguity to Improve Performance, Project Insight, George Pitagorsky
  2. 4 Tips for Navigating Ambiguity, IDEO U, Suzanne Gibbs Howard, Dean of IDEO U
  3. Managing When the Future Is Unclear, Havard Business Review, Lisa Lai
  4. Episode 62,Listener questions:…, Crazy One Podcast, Stephen Gates
  5. Dealing With Ambiguity: The New Business Imperative, Beyond Philosophy, Colin Shaw

About Buttonwood

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