Developing a Tolerance for Ambiguity
By Greg | Published: January 14, 2010
Celebrate your appreciation for ambiguity with a T-shirt like this from the Mental Floss store Early in my career at GE, one of the leadership values the company mentioned, but never really emphasized, was a “tolerance for ambiguity”. There was never any coaching on how to develop such a capability. Even now, I can’t really find a reference to it on the web (though current GE CEO Jeff Immelt recently emphasized the need for leaders to be “comfortable with ambiguity” in a speech at West Point). Over the years, however, I have come to appreciate how important this skill can be for a leader and learned how to develop it as a strength. Wikipedia defines “ambiguity tolerance” as “the ability to perceive ambiguity in information and behavior in a neutral and open way.” I prefer a more active definition, so I consider a tolerance for ambiguity to means“planning and executing appropriate actions in light of limited information.” The emphasis is on being able to move forward in spite of limited or conflicting information, as opposed to just “neutrally” recognizing that such a situation exists. Ambiguity is all around us, whether it is in the form of uncertain business or economic conditions, unclear job descriptions or expectations, or vague corporate strategies. Today’s economic environment, which some economists have taken to calling The Great Ambiguity, presents an extreme case of an uncertain outlook. Your nature and upbringing can shape your natural tolerance for ambiguity. Education and early career experiences also play a major role. For example, accountants tend to have little tolerance for ambiguity as their education and experiences are based in clear rules. Marketers may have too much tolerance, and often resist moving towards metrics-driven processes. Engineers (author’s note: my education is in engineering) may surprisingly have the best background for developing this capability, as more complex problems require making assumptions to deal with limited information.
Sometimes ambiguity is the only choice… (photo courtesy of VatorNews) Whatever your background, you can improve your ambiguity tolerance. I have found the following steps to be helpful in doing so: First, make sure all potential data sources are exhausted. Tolerating ambiguity is not an excuse for lacking diligence in data-gathering; well informed decisions are still better than the best assumptions. And I don’t mean just surfing the Internet. Get out and talk to customers about business conditions, or colleagues about roles and responsibilities. You will know you are reaching a limit when the incremental effort to acquire more data outweighs the value of that data. Brainstorm assumptions you can make to close the gaps in your data. Depending on the scope of your problem, this may or may not involve others. Assumptions should be based on whatever known data, historical precedent, or “common knowledge” may exist (but be particularly careful on the latter). Document your assumptions transparently. This serves two purposes. First, you will have a reference to go back and review and test as results occur (which may help to confirm or refute your assumptions). Second, this helps you CYA in the event outcomes are different than planned. For important situations, consider alternate assumptions. This may take the form of “worst case” analysis, or at least analyzing a scenario where assumptions do not play out as favorably as in the “base case”. This can help you prepare contingency plans to react quickly to new data or unexpected results. Define a process and rhythm for testing your assumptions. This process should define the frequency which you will review results, the metrics used to test results, and adjustments you will make as performance differs from targets. Execute your plan. This step is obvious, but a reminder not to get over-involved in planning to the point...
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