Muzeable’s Essential Guide to Growth No. 767: Skills for the Modern Age 3 – [Learning to Love] Ambiguity

Muzeable Thinking No. 11 – posted by Tim Brooks 11th August 2013

I’ve recently written about imagination & exploitation as essential VUCA*-world skills. The thought-pieces are not presented as a fact, but as an attempt to start a discussion around some of the new approaches we need for a changed and – if not new – ever-changing world. There’s a third competence in the new leadership playbook that I believe to be essential and it’s the hardest one of all to get right. It’s a brutal truth requirement in a complex world and one most of us struggle with. This is Number 3 on my list of Essential Skills, a list that, I admit, grows with ‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition’ like confusion… is AMBIGUITY; or at least the ability to cope with, even – ‘eaven forbid – embrace it. I would argue embracing  it is a Hobson’s Choice as if you are not swamped in ambiguity already then you are either not paying attention or psychotically thick-skinned or short sighted.

Ambiguity is particularly hard because it is counter to EVERYTHING businesses and most business leaders feel most comfortable with. Counter to everything that got most leaders to the corner office in the first place. Their near-past skill was to seek to simplify, to create order, to speed up, to get immediate results – the ability to ‘tell it how it is!’  Warts and all. This is still a requirement – especially the rigorous self/situational analysis – but the usual approach is based on the assumption you have a blind clue what ‘it’ is or enough idea that the points of error in statistically insignificant. My point is that nowadays:

  • If you do understand what’s occurring then you’re a guru/genius,
  • if you think you actually know – sympathies, you’re delusional and heading for a hard landing.
  • What you probably have is lots of ambiguity and it will be at the heart of your short and long term challenges and it won’t fit in the designated solutions box.

But there’s a bit of a ‘so what?’ lurking here. What does this ambiguity malarkey really mean and why does it matter so much?

YAWN… not more whinging about complexity

We are all well versed (tired even) of hearing about the complexity we all face and our corporate inability to find the right ways or changes we need to embrace to really understand and deconstruct the problems that lie in its shadow. Certainly, we struggle to do this with the confidence of previous ages. The point is that our tiredness does not diminish its truth! In a short diatribe such as this, that’s all you need to know about complexity. What is it that complexity and uncertainty create… you’re there already – AMBIGUITY! More ambiguous problems, more ambiguous data, lots of decisions founded on ambiguity and more and more solutions executed neck deep in contextual ambiguity. Growth strategies, marketing & comms all swim in this dark, GREY primeval soup.

Leaders have to learn to thrive and eventually swim faster in this molasses. It is counter to everything they ever learnt on the way up the greasy pole. It requires an ability to:

  • slow down and to reflect DEEPLY.
  • lose some (not all) of that psychotic decisiveness.
  • You need to let some/more stuff ride, plough on for a bit longer than is comfortable
  • acknowledge the time it will take to come up with meaningful answers – that won’t necessarily fit your reporting and planning ‘cycles’,
  • move from structured plans and certainty to frameworks and rules of thumb.

It’s another reason why the obsession with Q by Q performance is ridiculous. It also requires an uncharacteristic (in macho corporate men especially) ability to say ‘I just don’t know’.  But you need to learn how to ‘not know’ and how to ‘not know together’! Collaborative doubt is potentially powerful and empowering – not knowing alone can be scary and limiting. Even in, or perhaps contradictorily because of, the BIG DATA world there’s too much data to know  – or at least understand – everything empirically, too much wood… So the key is about the nature of the uncertainty this ambiguity forces on us. This deep shared sense of unknowing It isn’t just about playing what’s in front of you and fast, decisive reactions to new situations. That’s like trying to empty the Great Lakes with a plastic bucket and a bit of determination. It’s about learning to reflect a bit longer and harder on your world. Holistic will no longer be a rude (unfair) word to describe kaftan herbal junkies and their hippy-clappy behaviour, it will be a necessary approach to thinking your way through ambiguity. A bit like the way WELLNESS/WELLBEING is now a mainstream healthcare idea because it is based on TRUTH. Corporate wellness will need holistic consideration – and that will take time and deep reflection. Slow approaches and ideas that used to be considered on the edge. Luxuries we couldn’t afford.

So what? Outcomes…

What will be the outcomes of embracing this new doubt? An ability, the objective even, to:

  • build Strategic frameworks not pre-defined plans. Understand flows and directional importance… like CHAOS THEORY and turbulence.
  • Rules of thumb not rules.
  • Clearly articulated intent not definitive outcomes.
  • More and better data – big or otherwise – leading to more understanding of the mechanics of your category and business model, but also to big unanswered questions – ambiguity you need to be comfortable with.
  • Then huge slugs of IMAGINATION to plait it all together so it:
    • makes sense to all and
    • can be embedded within and executed by the organisation you actually are, not the theoretical one you might want to be!
  • It will require change, but be careful about vesting the solution in the recent past’s love of CHANGE MANAGEMENT set pieces… they are an Emperor’s new clothes slice of self abuse!

In a world where change rarely works we will need to really lock down what change actually means in this context.  This means less ‘big C’, more ‘small c’ and better defining your ‘point of change’ before jumping. This creates even more discomfort for leaders brought up to launch their tenure with a BIG C statement (usually denigrating the recent past) and a psychotic need to get on with it long before they usually know what ‘it’ actually is. ‘The let’s get going and if I’m half right we’ll be ok’ approach which might have worked in the past for new leaders probably won’t work anymore!

If you doubt the overall need look at the data. Wherever you look it points to large tranches of companies – often BLUE CHIP ones – not really delivering anything like high performance. This MUST prompt a re-evaluation of what and how… let alone why! It just seems to me that much of this must be behaviourally and structurally based before we get to execution and tactical evolution… this is what the new ESSENTIALS for future success are about, so…

Take 3 steps to HEAVEN!

As a starter… think:

  1. How do I EMBRACE and feel COMFORTABLE with the AMBIGUITY of my world. This is easy, a simple exercise will create a long list of important things we part know, or for which there are 2 decent responses.
  2. How do I start to think IMAGINATIVELY about the STRATEGIC FRAMEWORKS that will drive my future activity? Harder, but simply start by mapping a potential world different from today. Look at your profit pools and consider how a new entrant – digital or different – might take your low hanging fruit away? Your easy, high margin business. Start to think what your business would need to look like to cut them off at the pass? Look at your last 5 big ideas – ones you thought had legs – and imagine how a different organisation might have done it; a start-up or a respected player from a parallel or different category.
  3. How do I build my EXPLOITATION capability to deliver the opportunistic potential that lies fortuitously in my path more effectively without derailing my world view [STRATEGY]. Proactively review your near term for exploitation opportunities that can provide moral boosting and ruthless focus for the business. I guarantee there is at least one in view…

Or call Muzeable to discuss any of the above in the context of your business. [Apologies for the cheap plug, but I don’t write all this for my health!]

And then remember, these are such exciting times…


*Volatility Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity


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