Let’s clarify what “dealing with ambiguity” means

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Managers should help bring clarity to their team and make decisions on the best available information.  That is a key role of managers.  But somehow this gets lost.  Let’s look at the concept of “dealing with ambiguity” and see how this can happen:

In many work environments, one of the key competencies managers and employees are expected to have is “dealing with ambiguity.”   For example, if you look at Microsoft’s education competencies (listed here), “dealing with ambiguity” is defined as follows:

Dealing with Ambiguity: Can effectively cope with change; can shift gears comfortably; can decide and act without having the total picture; can comfortably handle risk and uncertainty.

With this definition, it appears that one who “deals with ambiguity” could be someone who accepts the ongoing state of ambiguity.  That is, “dealing with ambiguity” means “living such that ambiguous things stayed ambiguous.”  Or in other words, “Keep things ambiguous—that’s OK.” 

Nowhere in the description of this competency, surprisingly, is the ongoing effort to reduce ambiguity

It is true that there are many ambiguous situations that a manager needs to deal with, and especially true that new ambiguities will constantly arise.   However, treating ambiguity as a steady state, and getting used to making decisions in this state is not a desirable situation.  Here’s why:

a)      It misses opportunities to obtain less ambiguous data

If you develop a competency in making decisions with incomplete information, then this is something you become proud of and perpetuate.   You will begin to make decisions with limited information as a matter of course.  If you habitually (or even proudly) make decisions with limited information, you are likely missing the opportunity to get more information and make a decision with improved info.  Strive to get the available, accessible data to make the best decision.  So instead of saying, “I have the ability to make decisions with limited information,” a manager should say, “I strive to get all of the information available first, and then I make the best decision possible.”  Yes, it can still be a not-so-clear-cut case in one direction, but at least you make the effort to make it less ambiguous.

I highly recommend the book, How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of Intangibles in Business   In it, Douglas Hubbard makes the argument that knowledge is the reduction of uncertainty.  He doesn’t intimate that you can eliminate uncertainty, but it doesn’t take too much effort to reduce it.  I wholeheartedly agree. 


b)      You effectively train your team not to get you information

Let’s say you state that you are proud of your ability to deal with ambiguity.  Your team will pick up on this, and not make the effort to reduce the ambiguity.   That effort to check the available information and to follow up to get accurate data?  Not so much.  Your team will know that you’ll make a decision on less than complete data anyway.  So you are encouraging underperformance on your team, and your decision making will be based on less than complete data.  They may even feel as though they will be punished if they try to make things clearer.

c)       Your decisions are always suspect

You declare that you are comfortable in the ambiguity.  You don’t need complete data.  Your team is conditioned to know this.  Your team now knows that you make decisions based on something other than the actual (or potential) data at hand.  Is it Favoritism?  Rhetoric?  Drama?  Historical inertia? 

d)      This translates into encouraging more ambiguous situations beyond decision-making

Dealing with ambiguity would seem to apply mostly to decision making, but it can easily translate to other areas of managing a team, especially if you set the tone that you are comfortable with the ambiguity: 

Setting goals? Ambiguous. 

Providing performance feedback?  Ambiguous. 

Team deliverables?  Ambiguous. 

Success metrics?  Ambiguous. 

How the team works together?  Ambiguous

Decision making process?  Ambiguous

Should you set the tone that you are comfortable with ambiguity, you erode opportunities for precision in all areas of your people and team management tasks, even ones that don’t have to be ambiguous.  It’s a formula for not getting things done.   

What to do instead: Reduce ambiguity

Instead of “dealing with ambiguity”, which has the strangely passive tone of allowing it to go on forever, a manager’s role should be “reduce ambiguity.”  A clear decision reduces ambiguity.  Team goals reduce ambiguity.  Performance feedback reduces ambiguity.  The inputs needed to understand the issue reduces ambiguity.  You’ll never get rid of ambiguity—but you are there to try to reduce it.

The team manager should have a key skill at taking ambiguous situations and identifying what it takes to make them less ambiguous for both the manager and the team.   Any team exists precisely for this reason– to take inputs and create something better, or in other words, make something ambiguous less ambiguous. 

Without this ongoing effort, you get entropy, and entropy is free, so don’t charge for it!

Good management design should encourage the ongoing reduction of ambiguity wherever it is possible.  Instead, many current designs, such as the one cited here from Microsoft, seem to encourage living in a steady state of ambiguity.

Have you had a manager who seemed proud to be living ambiguously?  How did this affect the team?

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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .

Comments

8 Responses to “Let’s clarify what “dealing with ambiguity” means”
  1. Ironically, this is exactly what they tried to get across to us in business school. We studied case after cases of businesses or projects that failed because managers did not identify or ignored key indicators that provided clear signals that the enterprise was not working.

    I think some of the problem is that people forget basic navigation involves relationships between things that don’t directly involve the target. Sailors look at stars. They aren’t trying to get to the stars. Micronesians crossed open ocean using maps made of coconut fronds that didn’t measure in distance, but canoe days, and indicated the direction of swells. Despite a poverty of information and high risk, they were able to identify key indicators that enabled them to succeed.

    Managers who tolerate needless amounts of ambiguity often style themselves as “risk takers,” but in my experience they are often actually very fearful and find it easier to shut their eyes to proceed. Real risk takers are much more open-eyed and alert to signals from their environment. I also find that the best managers are also extremely curious, and this tendency yields both a bigger supply of opportunities and key indicators.

    When I see job postings that say “Candidate must be comfortable dealing with ambiguity,” my immediate suspicion is that there is a fearful manager somewhere in that group.

  2. Great points, Jane! I like how you connect not wanting to learn more about what’s going on to being risk-adverse. Fantastic!

  3. To be fair to Microsoft (my employer), this concept of “Dealing with Ambiguity” relates to how well people can construct meaning out from countless, random data points; to craft an outcome based on an amazing diversity of facts, options and potential directions. There are 90k employees at Microsoft, and our business is inventing technology. Big ideas are vetted by massive amounts of people, and have little basis for comparison in the analog world.

    The concept of ambiguity relates to working across unclear boundaries of ownership and accountability, and navigating layers of processes and complexity, it also relates to translating unclear human benefit into tangible products and services. Success in this area is … well… measured in business outcomes… succeeding without a pre-defined blueprint. Microsoft is a result-oriented culture, so it is a bit unfair (wrong) to imply that we value living in a state of ambiguity.

    Ask any technology inventor in the world, they’ll tell you the same thing. If we knew the answers to the questions when we started, there would be no point in trying to invent the future. Why bother? — ambiguity comes with the territory, and yes, succeeding in environments where ambiguity exists is a necessary skill. I am far more interested in employing people who can get something done than I am employing people to send newsletters and to have / find / share all the answers.

    Nobody “likes” living in a state of ambiguity, it is a reality that exists in organizations that are heavily matrixed. I would also like to think that a good management culture encourages perfect attendance, correct discipline in meeting management, etc., but the reality of the working world is that creative exercises produce waste, people are imperfect, and people are held accountable despite the failures of the people and systems surrounding them.

    Theoretically it is useful to desire clarity, but if you work in an enviornment where all the answers are always known, I’d say your job is very boring and I would also encourage you to find a different one. Perhaps you should point the reference toward a more appropriate example.

    Good theory, but wholly disconnected from reality. I would hate to have a job where everything was known, what a boring existence that would make.

    Otherwise a fine post.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful response, Gray, and I’m glad to see you’ve found the “Manager by Design” blog!

    I believe that we are in agreement here – I never would think that there is a situation where ambiguity can be eliminated, and a job where there is no ambiguity is a boring job. But where there is ambiguity, that means there is a job to be done, and that job is to identify where ambiguity can be reduced, and then reducing it, knowing that there will be new ambiguity, a.k.a., challenges, that will be there to keep the job interesting.

    That said, I don’t think that this concept is “wholly disconnected from reality.” The inspiration for this post was created from my experience at Microsoft. As a former manager at Microsoft myself, I valued and praised those employees who were able to take the ongoing series of “random data points” and created greater clarity. These were the most productive and results-oriented/results-generating employees. In addition, they also prevented unnecessary new ambiguities from arising. These were the employees who could “deal with ambiguity” the best. They attacked it, or, to use your term, “created meaning.” In addition to meaning, this also created value.

    The same goes for managers at Microsoft – those who worked to increase clarity of purpose, timelines, direction and strategy, and provided feedback as to whether or not we were on track, rather than those who more passively “dealt with it” — these were the most effective managers, and the most desirable to work for. Never was there the intimation that we (the manager or the team) could eliminate ambiguity, but we did reduce it where we could. The more ambiguity was reduced, the more we produced! Then we could move onto new challenges.

  5. Nony says:

    Thank you for this article! I am suffering from poor management (no direction and high specific expectations) and when I complained about the lack of direction, I was accused of “not dealing well with ambuity”.

    I appreciate your website very much.

  6. Cory says:

    Take a look at that Microsoft article again bub. It clearly cautions against overdoing dealing with ambiguity. Ambiguity is extremely prevalent in the computer science field and is something that people at Microsoft will routinely deal with. Therefore, Microsoft is not encouraging ambiguity, but dealing with their everyday reality. Just a heads up Mr. Oelwine from a CIS man himself.

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