Tolerating Ambiguity in Four Simple Steps

ambiguity - Tolerating Ambiguity in Four Simple Steps

I have started several conversations with colleagues over the last month on the topic of ambiguity tolerance as a competency area for organizational leaders. Ambiguity tolerance has been a focus area of my studies over the last couple of years, so it’s not surprising that I see connections to the topic everywhere, especially since I’m the one who usually brings it up. Here are two examples from two different client engagements over two consecutive weeks.

In the first example, I co-led an executive development workshop on strategy formation. The four-day session blended strategic thinking skills with an introduction to the organization’s revamped strategic and operational planning process. Throughout the program executive speakers and panelists from inside the company talked to the class about how the organization develops strategy. Nearly all the executives described the challenge of strategic thinking as you move into larger and more complex roles over the course of your career as “getting comfortable with the white space.”

A week later I was chatting with the head of talent development for a different client who had recently been a panelist at a Conference Board event on executive development. She told me that she had interviewed the presidents of each of her organization’s business units prior to appearing on the panel. She wanted to understand their perspectives on what it takes to be an effective executive and what had changed about the role over the last ten years. All of the executives she spoke with mentioned the challenge of dealing with uncertainty and volatility. One of the group presidents, who holds a doctorate in nuclear engineering, talked to her about adapting to the inevitability of daily ambiguity after thirty years of schooling and jobs that taught him to eliminate ambiguity on behalf of safety and control.

In a 2011 blog post, Lynda Gratton, a Professor of Management Practice at London Business School wrote, “Those engaged in our Future of Work consortium believe that leading in the future will require two core competencies: the capacity to tolerate the ambiguity that many will face in this fast changing world; and intercultural sensitivity as the joining up of the world brings greater numbers of nationalities into the frame.” Gratton went on to speculate that given their daily experiences with uncertainty, business school students in developing countries may have an edge when it comes to getting comfortable with ambiguity.

The title of this blog was meant to be ironic, yet I do think that organizational development academics and practitioners will have to find ways to help smart, operationally oriented managers navigate the uncharted territories of today’s business landscape. I have been playing with the idea of using metaphor as way to orient thinking when there are no guidelines or recipes for success. Here is a thought about how to conceptualize the stages through which an organizational leader passes that might help reduce the anxiety of feeling unprepared for the kind of thinking required by the next rung in the career ladder. In this metaphor, “getting comfortable with the white space” equates to the skill of defining the territory when no one has a map.

Stage One: Following Directions

The ability to read a map and follow the steps along a designated path
Stage Two: Orienteering
The ability to read the terrain, select the most appropriate path to a given destination, and stay on course
Stage Three: Map Making
The ability to make order out of a complex landscape so that others can recognize destinations and choose a path forward
Stage Four: Defining the Territory
The ability to establish boundary conditions that creates a shared identity for leaders so that they can select appropriate destinations

As I write this post, I’m left wondering if “metaphor making” is my own prescription for getting comfortable with ambiguity.

Illustration from ELT Stew
Read other posts by Jay G. Cone

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