Ambiguity and Complexity at the workplace

Some months ago, I was invited by my professor at the Yale School of Management to speak on a panel on the topic of ambiguity and complexity. Apparently not much has been written on this topic in relation to social enterprise, my area of expertise, and our lived experiences were supposed to be inputs for the class.

As I reflected on the theme and my career journey both in the business and development world, I could not help but realise that ambiguity and complexity were part of my journey throughout.

I started my career as a Flight Attendant in the aviation industry in India. This was due to a burning desire to travel and explore the world and not wanting to get caught up in the rat race. With absolutely no plan in mind and no strategy for a career path, I navigated through several roles across two airlines over a 20-year period that led me to the top of the ladder as Vice President Network Planning, which is a highly strategic department.

Through this journey ambiguity was certainly my companion.

If you had asked me to state at any point during those 20 years where I would be in five years, looking back at my career, I could hardly have pointed you in the right direction. My path was not linear but very curvy. My roles were either thrust upon me by seniors who recognised my potential or resulted from seizing opportunities that presented themselves. Many of my positions, like Revenue Management and Network Planning, were roles that were “new jobs” being created out of necessity due to business requirements. I was lucky to have been able to write my own job description and define the scope of my work.

Over a period of time, I realised that I loved ambiguity because it allowed me to shape my role and work to suit me whilst still keeping the organisation’s vision and values in focus. As part of the start-up airline Kingfisher, I took up new responsibilities which were way out of the boundaries of my job description, and in the process learned a lot. It allowed me to be creative, think out of the box and increase my self-confidence.

On the other hand, complexity was something that I found to be over-rated.

I love to say, nothing is rocket science except rocket science itself. As I found myself moving from one role to another, I realised that even though I did not have the educational qualifications to assist me, I did have common sense and a great thirst for learning. I picked up my skills on the job and later updated my educational qualifications just to make sure that no one could criticise me for the lack of it. In fact, when I was studying for my MBA through correspondence, I could understand the business concepts as I already had the lived experience. Probably I didn’t know the science or theory behind what we were doing, but implementing concepts and doing it effectively was what I had experience in.

So, in my view, to be effective, keep things simple and don’t make it complex unless it is absolutely necessary. My role as Vice President Network Planning required me to oversee the scheduling and management of over 500 daily flights across India and abroad. On the outside it does look complex, but it seemed very easy and natural to me because of my varied background in different prior roles I understood the basic principles of revenue and fleet optimisation, crew management and airline strategy.

When I decided to make a career switch to the development sector and work on sexual violence prevention, I applied my business skills to the work. My deep understanding and practical experience in situational awareness, understanding of human factors, data visualisation and analysis and the value of collaborations and partnerships came in handy. I developed my networks from scratch, took a concept and made it a working model for change, collaborated across geographies and led virtual teams whilst creating a globally recognised organisation.

Therefore, my advice would be do not be afraid of ambiguity as it can be a friend to you. On the other hand, do not indulge in or be intimidated by complexity and stick to simplicity.