As a manager or leader, we don’t always have all the information we need to make critical decisions. In many cases, we face ambiguity. Ambiguity is about doubtfulness, uncertainty, or vagueness. Many times leadership is about not knowing yet making the best of the moment without assurances about what the outcome might be.
Many problems managers and leaders face are ambiguous –neither the problem nor the solution is clear. If we had all the time in the world, and 100 percent of the information, we could make decisions that are more accurate, more often. However, the real reward goes to those who make good decisions most of the time, with few or no precedents regarding how similar problems were solved.
There are several ways we can handle ambiguity. One way is to take small, incremental steps. How we deal with uncertainty depends on how we tolerate errors and mistakes, and how we face any criticism that might follow. We might be able to make a series of smaller decisions, get feedback, make corrections, and move forward a little further. Sometimes the second or third try works best.
Another way to deal with ambiguity is to broaden our horizons. Few people are motivated by uncertainty and chaos. However, many leaders are challenged by solving problems others have not solved, in essence going where no one has gone before. They enjoy learning new things and exploring new horizons.
Another process to deal with ambiguity is to get better organized. Set priorities, focus on the critical issues, and let go of the trivia. Learn how to become more effective and efficient in our work processes, and discipline ourselves by developing a set of best practices.
Don’t be afraid to fail. We often fail the first time we try something new. Anything worth doing can take repeated effort. We can learn from our mistakes by creating immediate feedback loops. As leaders, we will make many mistakes and have many failures because of the many ambiguities we face. We can’t always be sure of success. If we face problems no one else has faced, it’s likely no one else knows what to do either. If we make a mistake, we can always ask ourselves what we have learned from it.
Stress will always come into the equation. The more ambiguity, the more stress we will have to manage. When this happens, we can become ungrounded, get frustrated, and many times become upset. It can be a very emotional time. If that happens, let the problem go for a while. Do something else and come back to it after you have a chance to calm down.
Change is about letting go of one thing and reaching for the next. This can be scary, but we have to let go in order to reach out. Many times, it will feel like we are trying to hold onto air until we get to a new place. If we are afraid to fail, we will stay in the same place. We will be safe, but nothing will have changed. We have to let go to change; we have to visualize that next outcome. We have to want it, go after it, or invite it in, experiment with it.
Not everything comes neatly wrapped. We should feel comfortable making mistakes, fixing them, and moving forward. It won’t always be perfect.
As Edward de Bono, a British physician, author, inventor and consultant once wrote:
“In the future, instead of striving to be right at a high cost, it will be more appropriate to be flexible and plural at a lower cost. If you cannot accurately predict the future, then you must flexibly be prepared to deal with various possible futures.”