Sunday, February 16, 2014

Dealing with Ambiguity

Are all jobs simple? May be few jobs. But majority of the jobs are not so simple though they seems to be simple. There are lot many things beyond the job descriptions. There are complex situations, you need to deal with.

“You may have to handle the ambiguity in the organization.”  I was told in my earlier organization while the interview. I knew that life is not always simple. There may be lot of confusion in the mind of people and  even I may have to deal with such confusion. I also may have to deal with this with right attitude. Off course, my learning happened while handling all this confusion and ambiguity. I got opportunities to develop long term systems.    

You will encounter with lot of situations in which something has more than one possible meaning and may therefore cause confusion. Ambiguity is the unwritten capability on all job specifications. 

Your job is to find out the best meaning and perform. There may be lot of reasons for having the ambiguity. Perhaps intervention of people across the hierarchy may be one the reasons. Sometimes top management may not aware, but legacy itself have certain meanings.

We tend to look the solutions in only black and white context. We forget that there are different shades in the culture of organizations. These different shades are basically ambiguities. If these shades are not handled properly, there are lot of confusion. This confusion give different perception. Employees interpret this as per their convenience. They find meaning in systems, behavior and situation and try to deal with that. Sometimes people survive, but if you don’t deal with that you are dead.

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.

Ask above questions when you are in ambiguous situation.
Instead of dealing with the ambiguity, it is always better to reduce the same by:-
  • Clear communication,
  • Clear Goals and clear expectations on performance standards,
  • Clear behavioural expectations, be fair and don’t give undue weightage only one behavior,
  • Make things simple,
  • Be transparent,
  • Define the process, don’t go by assumptions,
  • Get feedback on time to time.

“There is no greater impediment to the advancement of knowledge than the ambiguity of words.” Thomas Reid


Tilson Musowoya said...

Thanks for sharing this great perspective on the need for keeping strategic and business plans simple and consice!

Jennifer Hyaejung Lee said...

I agree with your idea. It's important to accept the ambiguity with open-mind and deal with it constructively.

saravjeet singh sheoran saravjeet singh saravjeet singh sheoran said...

very true ..... there is no defined line of work..... in modern world professionally we have to be broad minded in thinking, planning, visualizing & implementing and realize the pros & cons of our actions only then we can proceed with. result oriented management expects work completion.... any the hook & crook may include ambiguity.

Lynn Brookes MCIPD said...

Interesting article thanks for sharing. I particularly liked the questions to ask in ambiguous situations.

Stefan Heer said...

Thanks Vinod for your interesting thoughts. Let me take a complementary position and argue why companies are dead, if the ambiguity is too little.

Let’s assume it is possible to reduce ambiguity to zero. People do exactly what they are told to do, and the top management knows exactly what everyone is doing. Such an organization is highly efficient in reproducing well defined tasks (as Henry Ford demonstrated). However, such organizations are highly vulnerable to everything what is not foreseeable. Everything what is not anticipated by the top management and translated into unambiguous instructions can be highly harmful. The top management of such organizations is typically overwhelmed with solving nitty gritty details. In other words: The solutions such an organization can produce are limited by the “problem solving capacity” of the top management. The remaining 95% of the people are treated like robots (robots cannot deal with ambiguity). Their “problem solving capacity” is not used. It can be a dangerous, yet lethal strategy, not to use so much capacity!

An alternative would be the insight, that life is full of ambiguity. All people are masters in dealing with ambiguity – they would not have survived otherwise. In todays markets, there is enough ambiguity for everyone… To consciously leave some of the ambiguity to the various roles, teams, departments may be a good strategy. This can be as little as installing “Kaizen” Processes, but can go as far as democratically set the company strategy (Semco).

The first approach can be advantageous, if the market is stable and foreseeable. Otherwise I would strive for a “distributed ambiguity approach”.

Vinod Bidwaik said...

Hi Stefan,

Fully agreed. In fact if we really want to assess the potential of employee, we should see how the person deals with ambiguity.

However, we also should not keep the ambiguity fully. If there are clear instructions on strategy, goals, employee would like to work on this fully hearted.

Udaybir Yadav said...

Complex..... gets converted to simple or solved when we practice certain simple norms on daily basis. Know your men; means lowest employ in hierarchy is connected to next and so on upwards. We should have regular interactions at all levels to know what bugs the employ; what is going on inside. Practicing this you will learn about problems that looks trivial but if not addressed in time it blows up in the shape of complex and big problem.

Annie said...

Stefan, your words are wise and helpful - I fully endorse the 'distributed ambiguity approach' as this is coherent with systemic thinking, distributed leadership et al. I would warn readers that if systems thinking is not your thing this may not translate (I link it too to knowing which of Jacques' levels of work you are comfortable with and what sorts of goals are you try to reach).
Years ago on dealing with client systems grappling with 'wicked problems' we used to say that "rocket science" was merely complicated - there are clear solutions (admittedly not simple) and if all fits together and reacts as per tests and rocket designs then the target destination planet is reached... whereas, something such as 'child-rearing' is intrinsically complex - no single right way to do it, no predictable outcomes. Even trying to attach a desirable outcome "as long as my kids are happy" can be deadly - ask a Buddhist! However there is a definite correlation between the growing awareness of ambiguity and complexity in today's connected world, and the hunger/market demand for 'simple solutions' - as seen in companies, books and articles offering the simple 10 things that will fix things for ever. Its comforting stuff and would be perverse to ignore it all on principle (though I confess I do). There was always a strong brigade of people urging me to 'Keep It Simple Stupid' (KISS). But me, with not a small amount of Schadenfreude mixed with curious constructive professional engagement of course, I'd offer an alternative philosophy - 'Pretend Its Simple Stupid' [acronym deleted]. Argyris and others can help us explain why we humans / social groupings have these defensive routines where ambiguity is concerned - many leadership groups and change teams have benefitted from being helped to explore, appreciate and act accordingly with these ideas.

Stefan Heer said...

@Vinod, about keeping the ambiguity fully: I see it as a management task, to distinguish between “necessary” and “unnecessary” ambiguity – and reduce the latter as far as possible. A good question to ask the people could be: “Is it possible to cope with the task?” / “what do you need, to cope with it?”
… and I bet it is not always a lack of instructions and clarity – it might also be things like a safety rope (the allowance to make mistakes), or sparring, or support, or backup, or time/priority,…  all this also helps great way to reduce ambiguity! So lets ask the folks directly what helps them to deal with their ambiguity.

@Anne, you detected and revealed my systemic constructivistic position. And I fully agree: It is not simple & stupid (KISS)… the other acronym fits much better.

Rebecca Mitchell said...

I like this idea very much. I think it applies across cultures to a great extent, that is, ambiguity is greater when we have to deal with organisations in different countries or even people of different nationalities. I worked in a country in Europe for many years and I remember that the phrase "driven to achieve" in a job reference was seen as a negative idea - indicating that someone was controlling and dictatorial. The same phrase would likely be seen as a positive comment in many other countries. This level of ambiguity can not easily be conveyed in any job description.

Suresh Kumar Jain said...

Mr. Yadav is correct to greater extent. Most of the problems starts as we do not have clear and defined goals at all levels. Process are not in place as per my experience most of the industry follows no process to groom the individual to take care of fast changing requirements. HR is doing TNI and other aspect to satisfy standards requirements or to please Auditors it is not well knitted to suit organisations requirements. Tools like PMS is being implemented halfheartedly in few of the organisations. We can involve people when we have clear Goals and understand the process.

Laura Irving said...

Life is ambiguous! So as we all know, survival of the fittest is not about strength but adaptability and responsiveness to these changes- and as Stefan suggests, creativity and innovation can come out of this evolution.

Perhaps it could also be suggested that people have always tried to make sense of the chaos of life and create some semblance of order and shared meaning through narrative/meta-narratives.

So in a business sense, I agree that strategic clarity and storytelling of the journey an organisation is on, can give a sense of direction and a feeling of shared participation and unity- even in uncertain times. So ambiguity isn't erased, but becomes contextualised, shared and easier to cope with.

Anne Bennett said...

Thanks Laura. There's a great leadership model focusing on sense-making and sense-giving which helps also re-frame the culture of expectations, such as that the leader (or we collectively) must be 'right' about some issue or our reading of a changing scenario. Maturity of the leaders and in the culture helps encourage the co-creating of sense, and can stay engaged in that daily task - what made sense yesterday will often make a different sense today

Jaswant Singh Saini said...

Ambiguity exists not only in job situations but every where in life...One needs to have adequate "Tolerance for ambiguity" to address the solutions...We need to understand (the cliche ) that perfection is possible only as a goal not as an achievement. I believe that it becomes easier to deal with ambiguity with cool and open mind.

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