Most of us grew up in an education system that preached plan, pre-emption, and execution. Our virtue was to attain control by getting rid of ambiguity. No wonder when we talk about dealing with ambiguity, we often mean eliminating than embracing it. We then research and plan excessively, in order to clear out any blank space in our knowledge. When we fail to achieve that – as we often do – we worry.
Don’t get me wrong, research and planning are effective methods to work with some ambiguity. However, not all ambiguities are created equal. Broadly, there are three common types of them:
1. Ambiguity From Inefficiency: Things were not well communicated to you due to an inefficient process or an incompetent communicator.
2. Ambiguity Due to Present Limits: You are in a new organization or domain. As a result, you don’t have sufficient experience, skills or relationships yet, which you can only build over time.
3. Systemic Ambiguity: Your role and many other organizational functions are defined with much room for interpretation. You struggle to understand boundaries of responsibilities and authorities.
Eliminating Ambiguity Helps, But Less and Less So
For type 1 where inefficiency causes things seem more ambiguous than they are, researching (gathering more knowledge) and planning (working around barriers) can indeed be helpful.
However, the other ambiguity can be harder to plan in. We can’t plan for what’s not in our knowledge today; We can’t plan when we can’t reliably make sense of a complicated environment that is subject to interpretations; We can’t plan for what is most likely changing the next moment. (Here, I used the word “plan” referring to its most understood meaning: an action plan where scenarios are predicted, outcomes are outlined, and actions are dictated. )
In the last decade, changes have accelerated exponentially, thanks to the information explosion and technology innovation. As a result, we increasingly find ourselves hitting our limits of knowledge and understanding.
A belief that ambiguity always can and
should be removed, hurts us
When Planning Is Bad
In the case of Type 2 and Type 3, a need for action plan becomes a liability. We grow frustrated when things don’t go as expected (and they often don’t); We become unable to shift gear quickly as needed; We fail to take bold steps, or any step at all – the need to control acts up strongly in ambiguity and many of us get stuck in the search of more information or a perfect plan.
When Researching Backfires
Some of us decide that it is about getting more puzzle pieces. We set out to gather data persistently and ask others whom we assume have answers on hand. Unfortunately, others are often as clueless as us, if not more so. We may also get confused with the overwhelming amount of information that might contradict each other. Last but not least, we may resort to “safe moves,” and earn a reputation of not leading with courage. If we are stuck in the “research mode,” it is hard to self-authorize beyond perceived boundaries and lead confidently.
When Worrying Becomes Uncontrollable
“We can plan for something important and not worry, if it seems to us we are in control. We worry about things we cannot control. Worry is, therefore, an inevitable consequence of the inability to plan successfully…” – Planning vs. Worrying | Psychology Today
Constant worries about worst-case scenarios and not being a perfect planner can take up too much of our emotional and cognitive bandwidth.
A little worrying wakes us up, too much
worrying holds us up.
The Era of Agile Has Come, But Waterfall Is Yet to Die
I was a software developer back in 2002 – twenty years ago. We believed in the power of planning, and waterfall charts were our holy grails. Fast forward to 2021, I virtually sat in an Agile classroom, getting certified as a Scrum Master and Product Owner. There, I witnessed how the waterfall chart, an old friend, was set up as a counter-example of inefficiency and outdatedness.
Seeing the potential to apply the agile mindset outside tech project meetings, I immediately made a video on Agile mindset for Career Development. However, the Waterfall model is still deeply rooted in the “operating system” for many of us. The signs you need an upgrade:
- You believe that outcome is entirely controllable, given adequate planning.
- You link your competence to your capability to plan for perfection.
The equation here is: “You are capable” = “You make perfect plans” = “A great outcome.”
The New Image of a Leader – Holding the Space of Ambiguity
At the center of the above equation sits our performance culture: we are equal to the outcomes we produce – although we shouldn’t own what we cannot control. In recent years, cultural shifts have happened, employee engagement, innovation, and agility are increasingly valued, and the performance culture is living its last years.
“The emphasis on being a strategic, forward-thinking leader who can envision viable futures and the path to those futures does little to prepare today’s leaders for the complex, ever-changing challenges… Leaders need to be able to hold the space of complexity and uncertainty in ways that encourage and enable generative and transformational change.” – Dr. Ben Koh, Coach Masters Academy
How to let go of control? You might wonder. After all, we like to acquire new things but hate to lose any – including old, outdated patterns. Here’s sharing a few important mindset shifts:
Shift Focus Away From Outcome
Focus on something you can control and therefore can own. In the Great resignation, you probably can’t prevent employees from leaving. But you can decide how to respond to it.
Plan for Learning, Failing, and Pivoting
Instead of planning for actions, plan for learning, failing, and pivoting. Have a long term vision, some checkpoints, and most importantly, plenty of space to grow in. Be comfortable in not knowing, while trusting that things can and will improve with time and effort.
Focus on what you do know
The desire to know more deprives us of what we already know. You will be surprised how much you know, even in the most unclear situation. It’s just that our mind becomes too fixated on finding out what we don’t know.
“Sure, at some level, every experience in life boils down to your interpretation of it. And if you can shift your mindset, then perhaps you can turn a negative experience into a positive one. But life is not a hallucination. You still have to deal with things. A healthy perspective can lessen the burden, but so can taking action. A problem that is solved is one that you don’t need to mentally reframe.” – James Clear
Build trust with people
When you trust people, you feel less need for control. You are more willing to share that space with people and patiently let order grow out of chaos.