Leadership skill – Comfort With Ambiguity


Comfort with Ambiguity

One of the advanced skills of a leader is the ability to handle ambiguity.

Ambiguity is often confused with complexity or vagueness.

Some assignments, projects or initiatives are huge, daunting and complex.  Examples are company strategy (where should RIMM, maker of Blackberry phone concentrate and how do they turn the company around) and national responses to major disasters (after 9/11 who should the US hold responsible, how to retaliate, at what cost and what other activities to postpone).

While the above two examples are extreme, they are not ambiguous.  The results would show if the objectives were achieved.

On the contrary, some tasks are very vague to begin with.

For example, if someone orders Mexican food for a dinner, you may want to know the details of the menu, whether there are any diet restrictions, whether dessert is also required and the number of people to cater to.

This is a very simple example in which the follow on questions help bring more certainty to the task and give the leader additional information to complete the task in accordance with the desired requirements.  Visit “Perfection and Ambiguity“ for a more advanced example.

When one takes on a task or assignment, it is very important to be clear about what is desired to be achieved. In other words, you want a lack of ambiguity or you must be certain about the end result.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ambiguous as something capable of being understood in two or more possible senses or ways.

My favorite example of ambiguity is a client requirement for a swing. How it was explained, interpreted, built, manufactured and billed is quite comical and one cartoon can be found herehttp://www.paragoninnovations.com/ng4/guide.shtml (cartoon copyright: Paragon Innovations)

Statements such as “He eats shoots and leaves” and “Bill dies in house” are very common statements of ambiguity. These can be interpreted in more than one correct way.

An effective leader has to develop a certain level of comfort with NOT having all the information available upfront.  Many challenging initiatives call for a starting plan of action.  As you delve more into the assignment or initiative more information becomes available and then you can plan for a much clearer course of action.  In a number of large projects, this type of initial foray is built in as a “scoping phase”.  At the end of the scoping phase, the exact nature of the proposed solution or action is known and this is then built into the plan.

What are your thoughts on this very interesting topic?  Can you share any examples from your experiences?  Do also send over any questions you may have in this regard.

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