Mar 012012

How Do You Deal With Ambiguity?

The word “ambiguous” has its origins in the early 1520s, from the Latin word imbiguus, “having double meaning, shifting, changeable, doubtful.”  Does this sound like some of people you’ve been around or have worked with?  People who are ambiguous are typically not comfortable with change or uncertainty.  They may prefer more data than others, prefer things tacked down and secure, may be quick to close and have a strong need to finish everything.  Sometime they do things the same way over and over.

According to studies, 90% of the problems of middle managers and above are ambiguous – meaning the problem and the solution are unclear.  If we had 100% of the information we could make more accurate decisions every time.  Given the information we do have, the challenge is to make more good decisions than bad ones.  We are challenged to do this with less than all the information, in less time, and with little or no precedents to how it might have been solved before.

Dealing with ambiguity is a leadership skill.  It’s about improving our clarity in dealing with those we influence. There are remedies for overcoming and improving this competency. A chapter in the book FYI, For Your Improvement, by Michael M. Lombardo & Robert W. Eichinger, gives us some steps to take for dealing with ambiguity; here are five of them:

  1. Take small incremental steps. Many times we are overwhelmed and lack all the information we wish we had, so we shoot in the dark.  If we make a series of small decisions, get feedback on them, correct our course of action, get more data and then move forward a little more until the bigger problem is under control.  Sometimes the second or third try gives us a better understanding of the underlying issues.  Starting small helps us recover quickly.
  2. Ask the right questions.  Get a firm handle of the problem.  Figure out what causes the problem and ask the right questions.  Keep asking “why” and go deeper with each question.  Before you can focus on the solution you need to figure out what caused the problem.  Defining the problem first with the right questions will lead to better decisions.  Focusing on solutions first will slow us down.
  3. Manage your stress.  As things become less ambiguous, we get stressed.  Stress will lead to frustration and cause us to lose our emotional anchor.  Think of what causes you to get anxious and study which situations lead to stress.  This will enable you to become more aware as a situation approaches, giving you time to head it off.  If you need, let the problem go for a while. Step away from it by doing something else and come back to it later.  You may gain a new perspective.
  4. Don’t be afraid to let go.  Sometimes you just have to let go.  For a short amount of time you have to hold on to nothing but air, trusting that you will find something to grab hold of.  You will land in a new place.  The worst fear for many people is change, which is about letting go. Visualize a better outcome, a better place and experiment. The more you do this the more comfortable you will be.
  5. Redefine your progress.  Some projects and tasks will never be finished.  Deal with it.  We are constantly editing our actions and decisions. Not everything comes in neatly wrapped packages, which means we constantly have to work in ambiguity, sometimes even abandoning our tasks.  The goal should be progress, not perfection.  We have to feel good about fixing our mistakes and moving forward.

The world is not clearly defined. Think of it as the path to adventure and a motivator to gain knowledge and understanding. The more you understand what causes ambiguity and how it affects decision making, the more of an effective leader you will be.  It is the effective leader who shows confidence and optimism by transforming the unknown into a vision of clarity.

Does this newsletter appear ambiguous, vague, and unclear?  If so, don’t fret, I don’t want it to be too clear, or else you might stop growing.

Until next time, take care.




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