The Crippling Nature of Ambiguity


Posted on May 1, 2009 by Blake Leath

Wow, do we have ambiguity in spades today, or what? 

Surely it’s not just my own little perception!

Surely not.

I’ve heard it by the truckload lately.  Here are four quotes from four different clients:

“There’s so much ambiguity that we cannot make decisions.”

“Our environment is rife with ambiguity; our people are wandering aimlessly.”

“We’re waiting for direction we know will never come.  Can you help us help our people to ‘lead through ambiguity?’”

“Until this economic mess clears up, we’re flat-footed.  We can’t seem to catch, roll, or run.  If it’s 2011 or 2012 by the time things improve, we’ll be long-dead by then.” 

What are leaders, organizations, employees to do?

The short answer is, “Leverage what you’ve got.”

As I described with one organization this past week, many entities currently resemble Swiss Cheese.  They’ve got ‘some’ of the answers, but not all.  Opportunity, challenge, and competitive advantage are found by those organizations FIRST able to fill in enough of the voids to move on.

It’s true… we NEVER have all the elements we need to form a perfect or complete answer.  But yes, we generally have a much clearer vision than today’s “survive.”  In lieu of that clear vision, there are many aspects of direction that we CAN marshal from the cheese.

For example, a sense of Purpose or Calling.  Values.  Key Strategy Categories like Talent Development (which includes dozens of helpful touchstones like recruitment, selection, development, appraisal, promotion, compensation, and succession planning), Image (branding, marketing, messaging, advertising, and promotion), and Financial (business economics, accounting methodologies, and anything remotely sales or revenue-related).

Sure, we may not have a full set of maps or navigational equipment, but we’ve been in the ocean before and we can generally make out a flicker from the distant lighthouse.  Knowing the storms are striking each market and industry differently, some organizations will need to identify and pursue entirely different beachheads and destinations, while others simply need to decelerate, accelerate, or make tiny course corrections. 

In the process of “organizational evolution” (lest one experience Market Darwinism and risk extinction through failing to adapt), we accept that DNA adapts slowly where at all.  Sweeping changes are less realistic or required than pivotal 1° tacks which, in the aggregate over time, generate significant transformation and success, all the while holding onto the riggings of what is familiar.

We know that for every sixty miles traveled, each degree of change throws us off course by one mile.  Said another way, even the smallest tweaks can take us to an entirely DIFFERENT, NEW, or BETTER destination.

Don’t let ambiguity cripple you or your organization’s ability to remain fixed on a long-term objective while accomplishing small and short-term wins.  They are indeed there, hoping against hope to be found.