How I Made Friends With Ambiguity

Have you noticed how people in the business world seem fixated on words starting with the letter ‘A’?

Agility, Adaptability, Ambiguity and Accountability come to mind.

If you had to choose one of those ‘A’s’ to do a personal development sprint for the next 30 days, which would it be?

I did exactly that, and my vote went to Ambiguity — because I figured that one A-word could change everything else. Why? Because, just about every aspect of my business life seems increasingly less certain and therefore more…..ambiguous. And that’s why I need agility, adaptability and accountability!!

How to Start with Ambiguity?

Here’s the top five behaviours I decided would be good indicators after 30 days that I was getting a handle on ambiguity:

  • Moving forward on a business choice without a clear runway
  • Looking cool, calm and confident when I’ve got no idea what’s going to happen next
  • Leaning ‘towards the fire’ — not avoiding it (such as the tough conversation)
  • Creating simple models and frames to help my team and clients to understand complex issues
  • Accepting the unacceptable ….and moving on quickly

Five Steps in the Right Direction

I read a few books and articles on ambiguity, did some research on our very human need for certainty (but not too much of it!) and created a 30 day practice plan with five actions. Here are the actions and what I learned:

1. Start with self awareness

It seems that the most people who learn to handle ambiguity (as opposed to those who are wired that way) know their tolerance levels and what makes them tick. So I dragged out my too-many psychological profiles and found some pertinent reasons why I get defensive and protective when things aren’t clear. Fortunately there didn’t seem to be a ‘personality deficit’, just a healthy brain built on 2 billion years of evolution by ancestors who could spot danger and survive.

KEY LEARNING: Be alert to the signs that my well-honed need for control is readying me for fight or flight. And then think ‘flow’.

2. Embrace risk

Ambiguity means decisions need to be made, or not made, with less than the complete picture. That sounds and feels risky, however mastering ambiguity isn’t about avoiding risk but rather about leaning into it. Which means scanning, looking for what is known (particularly about risks), and then backing your judgement. How? From what I could see, the masters of ambiguity are like professional gamblers who calculate their every move, whereas the novices act more like amateur punters who let emotion take over.

KEY LEARNING: Be deliberate in weighing up risk and return. Then, if at all possible, go for trial and small errors. That way you don’t blow up the bank in one bold move but do make progress (when I would previously have been waiting on “more data please”).

3. Stay composed …be ready for anything

Thriving in ambiguity seems to be as much about mindset as it is about technical skills or experience. I realised from some basic psychology and listening to a couple of TED Talks that the mindset of people who thrive in uncertainty is something like, “Things are sometimes out of control, but if I stay composed and focused on what’s happening in the present moment, then I give myself the best chance of responding to whatever happens.”

KEY LEARNING: Don’t catastrophize — be mindful, alert and agile.

4. Use learning loops to navigate

Having a plan is great, however when navigating ambiguity, the plan is quickly obsolete because circumstances or understanding changes. So I’ve been practising accelerating the loop from planning, to doing, to learning and back to planning. That’s meant moving before I’m fully comfortable and I’ve found it’s actually easier to be on the move than do extra planning (or speculating). So now my mantra is to set a base plan, move quickly to test assumptions, tolerate the ambiguity and be relentless in learning and looking for evidence that I’m on the right track.

KEY LEARNING: Ready, fire, aim … be on the move and always learning.

5. Leverage my relationships

Relationships are the glue that holds things together when everything around you is shifting. In the 30 day sprint, with many projects and activities on the go, I found the points of certainty for me were the people I trusted to give me perspective (on self awareness, risks, mindset and plans). It highlighted the power of cultivating a network of broad and deep relationships.

KEY LEARNING: Seek perspective from those who will support and challenge you in equal measure. They will be the wind beneath those wings or keep you grounded when that’s the place to be.

Where Next for my Friend Ambiguity?

A paradigm shift is underway in business because most of our mental models assume clear vision and goals, defined boundaries and a clear pathway i.e. certainty. However, I’ve realised even more in the past 30 days, that my big challenges aren’t technical issues, they are adaptive, which means I have to make thriving in ambiguity a critical capability for me and my team.

I’m really pleased to be making friends with ambiguity…. because he / she is a formidable enemy. What are you doing for the next 30 days?

Graham Winter is an Australian Psychologist and best-selling author of Think One Team and First Be Nimble.

To contact Graham, visit www.thinkoneteam.com
A version of this article was first published on the CEO Magazine website in January 2016.