Navigating Ambiguity

Our next discovery along the EQ spectrum is navigating ambiguity.

Communications of intent (plans, aims, objectives) are often inexact and require significant processing and inquiry to establish adequate clarity. Our brains desire certainty and are wired to anticipate what will happen next. When what happens next is unclear, we process the event as a threat. When what happens next is predictable, we process the event as a reward.

High-performing leaders are comfortable with the unknown and commit to processes that clarify objectives and the roles required to meet them. This develops patterns of predictability and rewarding outcomes. 

“Words are not only a clumsy and ambiguous means of communication, they are extraordinarily slow.” – John Holt


What do We Mean by Navigating Ambiguity?

Ambiguity exists when intent or meaning can be interpreted more than one way. It can fuel uncertainty, doubt and instability. The presence of ambiguity also offers great opportunity to leaders willing to accept personal responsibility for the outcomes they achieve. Leaders who embrace accountability for their own outcomes develop the high-value skill of developing shared understanding. This ability to consistently lead teams to “stack hands” and “rally” around a singular objective strengthens interpersonal relationships and coalitions that sustain movements  

Chris shares strategies for dealing with ambiguity.

According to studies, 90% of the challenges faced by middle managers and above are ambiguous. The problems and solutions are both unknown and the higher you go, the more ambiguous things become (perhaps this is what has created the need for consultants). Most people, if given 100% of the information and enough time can make accurate decisions. Exemplary leaders make more good decisions than bad with less than all of the information, in less time, with little or no precedent on how similar issues have been solved before.

Effectively navigating ambiguity requires us to accept the role of learner and educator. We must be curious about how the current state came to be and remain relentless about inspiring a shared vision of the future.  

“The enemy of accountability is ambiguity.” – Patrick Lencioni


Benefits of Navigating Ambiguity

Leaders who are under-skilled with this discovery struggle to emerge clear solutions from incomplete information, move slower and less efficiently due to the need for certainty and are often too quick to close the matter at hand. 

Leaders who can effectively deal with ambiguity are flexible and adaptable to a variety of challenges and situations. This creates enormous value for their teams and organizations because they: 

  • Shift gears comfortably
  • Can act without ALL the information
  • Remain confident in times of uncertainty 
  • Don’t have to finish things before moving on
  • Comfortably handle high-risk / high-visibility projects


The Bottom Line

Every journey is fraught with ambiguity. Our ability to clearly identify obstacles, accurately frame the challenges and plot the route to success eliminates unnecessary suffering for ourselves and the people we are charged to lead.

Tactics to Navigate Ambiguity

  • Identify THE CUSTOMER: when “we” need to do something or “they” have a request, stay with the discovery until it is clear who is making the request and who determines when the conditions of satisfaction are met. 
  • Identify THE PERFORMER: Who is the intended performer? Does this person have the capacity to do what is being asked? If not, the request should be directed at someone who does. Additionally, it is important to make sure it is clear to everyone who has been identified as the intended performer. A statement like, “We need to do a study of this…” is usually spoken as a request by the person making it, and may also be heard as a request by some people. But without identifying an intended performer it is simply a statement of need. 
  • Understand THE DIRECT REQUEST (ACTION): A request is the customer order to fulfill a need. The customer is the one who identifies what this is. It may be a tangible item or an action of some kind. It may be simple or complex. Whatever it is, the key question for project leaders and performers to ask is, “will the intended item or action produce what is needed?”
  • “Stack hands” on THE CONDITIONS OF SATISFACTION: Unless the customer makes it absolutely clear exactly what the conditions are that will satisfy the need, the performer is left to fill in the specifics. Leaving conditions of satisfaction up to the performer often results in the customer not getting what they really want. What form should the deliverable take, to whom should it be delivered, etc.? 
  • Ask THE RIGHT QUESTIONS: Ask the right questions to define the right problems. Direct requests have a much better chance of being fulfilled than those that are indirect. Human nature is to “soften” direct requests, usually because we assess that direct requests are “impolite”, or sound “too harsh”. Our work must focus on making unclear requests explicit. A helpful approach is to say, “What is your ask?” Or from the other side, say, “my ask is…”
  • Develop THE TIMEFRAME: Without this information it is again left up to the performer to decide when he/she does it. By the way, “ASAP” is not a timeframe. It may mean by the end of the day to the customers and the end of the month to a performer.
  • Practice APPRECIATIVE INQUIRY: Projects and organizations evolve in the direction of the questions most persistently and passionately asked. Asking questions from a position of care and respect increases trust, accelerates community development, inspires innovation and enhances effectiveness of work teams.


Challenge Question

Going forward, what are the actions you can take to reduce ambiguity within your roles, projects or understandings between yourself and another person?


For further reading, see the following resources:

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