How Do You Thrive in Ambiguity?

The question was sparked by Alli Pollin in her blog post entitled Personal Leadership: Thrive in Ambiguity. From here, we engaged our Lead Change Google+ Community to get their perspective on the following questions:

How do you thrive in ambiguity? On what leadership skills do you lean?

Leading Through Ambiguity

Highlighted below are snapshot insights from various leaders.

John E. Smith: I immediately thought of curiosity as the leadership skill I lean on when times are unsettled and the way forward is unclear. I may not be using the right word, but I am thinking of three specific things: 1) The need to know something about many different things instead of focusing only on one. The leaders I most respect have a dazzling array of interests and knowledge. 2)  Similar to number 1, the habit (dare I say "obsession") of collecting random knowledge which appears trivial, but in the right context, becomes essential. 3) Of course, a well - developed ability to ask thought-provoking, challenging, and probing questions.

Jane Anderson: Opportunity to dissolve ambiguity.  Why? What? When? Who? How?  Start with one, then continue.

Martin Webster: I don't think organizations can thrive with ambiguity. While uncertainty is something we often live with, we should do as Jane Anderson says, and dissolve ambiguity. For me, this means taking responsibility and challenging ambiguity with questions.

Chantal Bechervaise: A lot of organizations face ambiguity, especially when they are a start-up or entering a new market. I think you need to have an explorer attitude. You have to be comfortable working without clear objectives and/or ready to change course. You need to be flexible and adaptable. You cannot be a micro-manager. Look at companies like Google, Pixar and Cirque de Soleil...they thrive in ambiguity.

Anne-Cécile Graber: I would add to the explorer attitude the capacity to envision a preferred future. When we and organization face ambiguity we can lean on this envisioned preferred future to guide our steps. The companies Chantal Bechervaise mentioned have a clear vision of their future.

Karin Hurt: Over communication.

Kate Nasser: In reading these wonderful comments, the one thing that came to me right away is the question itself. Thriving ambiguity doesn't mean we strive for it. To me it means using ambiguity to: Discover the bigger truth than our initial perspective reveals to us; Engage employees in solving the puzzle with their talents thus coming up with possible solutions that we as individual leaders wouldn't have; Sharpen our critical thinking skills (lose it if you don't use it); Embrace diversity; Innovate with new ideas vs being trapped by the comfort of habit.

Filled with Questions

As Alli started her posted, she was filled with questions. Being filled with questions can be unsettling, but it also can be engaging. Some of the different perspectives above highlighted this point. Questions beget more questions, and our curiosity becomes fully engaged. In many ways, this is a good thing. Being curious means we are exploring, discovering, and learning. Each of these are positive leadership traits.

More than this, being filled with questions may lead to more conversations with others. Conversations means a community is involved. This is another good thing. Through interaction, collaboration can unfold. Through collaboration, better outcomes can occur.

The obvious worst thing that can happen is to get muddled in our questions and leave decisions and choices unmade. Questions do require thinking and considering. Questions also require reaching a conclusion. Each decision or choice may not be perfect, but it does move us forward. As we continue on, we will continue to learn and adjust as well as get to a point of being faced with many more questions.

Ambiguity Means Leaning In, Not Running Away

The amazing thing about the insights above is most of them said to go into the ambiguity rather than run from it. Yes, this is what good leaders will do. Good leaders know that ambiguity is a fact of the environments we work and live in. Ambiguity cannot be ignored. Ambiguity needs to be embraced.

Much more needs to be done though. Great leaders envision a grander future and describe clearly why we need to punch through it. Great leaders raise everyone’s thoughts and actions to new levels of engagement. Anne-Cécile Graber, Chantal Bechervaise, and Kate Nasser captured these points well. Great leaders capture the imagination of what is possible and empower people to achieve much in times of ambiguity.

Alli Pollin’s post sparked this conversation and so it is appropriate to sum it up with her thoughts:

“Leadership is thriving through ambiguity, yes. But when you unpack that statement, it’s clear that leadership is making intentional choices and feeling your way though, based on what you know and value.”

Well said. Great leaders make intentional choices, centered in sound principles and values. From here, great leaders deliver clear purposeful direction and engage many to achieve great results in times of ambiguity.

How do you lead through ambiguity? What guides you along the way?


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