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The Power of Ambiguity

How do we deal with ambiguity? What do you do when there is no structure? This was the challenge faced by participants of a personal development programme I recently co-facilitated. This week long event was an open space programme with no agenda or structure, creating a huge sense of ambiguity and uncertainty. However, this also created a enormous learning opportunity to explore individual resources, creativity and the ability to bring meaning when faced with uncertainty.

After short introductions, outlining the nature of the personal development programme, the facilitators left the participants with the parting words, “you can do anything that supports your personal development.”

Ambiguity is a huge challenge. Certainty provides structure, or alternatively structure provides certainty. Diary meetings provide structure to our day and the certainty of what will come next in our schedule. The day of the week gives rise to a routine, for example, a Sunday routine is very different to a Monday routine. Remove the structure and there are feelings of uncertainty; “I am out of control”, “I cannot predict the future”, “I don’t know what’s next”, “I’m not master of my own destiny.” Ambiguity is certainly ‘out of comfort zone’ territory.

There is a requirement for us to handle more and more ambiguity. Our world is becoming increasingly complex; we are busier than ever with family life and careers, there are constant technology changes, and in organisations our competitors of today may have appeared overnight through unexpected innovation. In organisations, ‘managing ambiguity’ is a common feature in leadership competency frameworks, for example, “Dealing with Ambiguity – effectively deals with change or uncertainty and is flexible. Confidently progresses plans and activities with less than complete data.”



However, do we help develop the ability to deal with ambiguity, or do we just expect people to be good at it? Is it assumed that leaders should naturally thrive in uncertainty?

For the participants at the open space workshop there were emotional phases experienced. Initially there was shock that the facilitators were actually walking out of the room. There was fear and apprehension based on “what am I going to do now, and for a whole week?” There was anger and resentment around wasting their valuable time when there was so many important emails to deal with.

Gradually these feelings subsided and positive feelings emerged. The participants started to create structure. They embraced their freedom to do whatever they wanted to support their personal development. Each person was now in control; they worked together and individually to maximise the learning opportunity. They created their own structure, focusing solely on their needs. One-to-one coaching sessions supported group discussions and on-demand facilitator led sessions on topics requested by the participants. Networks developed across the multinational participant group acting as real time learning, and the 8.30am to 7.30pm days soon passed with a feeling of energy and positivity.

The change from a negative feeling of insecurity to a positive feeling of empowerment was dramatic. This change could not be taught, but had to be experienced. Uncertainty enabled creativity, what was a void was filled. This is the power of ambiguity.

Practically how do we deal with ambiguity, how do we create security from insecurity? The key points for managing ambiguity are:

  • Create certainty out of uncertainty by having a vision linked to your purpose.
  • Let go of the need to complete a task.
  • Let go of the need to be busy.
  • Hold on to the opportunity to explore.
  • Take decisions based on the information you have, rather than craving more detail.
  • Relax and allow things to emerge.
  • Reflect and draw on previous experiences.
  • Get organised and create structure.
  • Take small steps and work incrementally.
  • Communicate and talk to others to fill gaps.
  • Most importantly acknowledge and embrace your feelings; “why are you feeling as you are?” Use this as an energy.

There is a quote attributed to John Allen Paulos, the American mathematician, “Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.” How true this is.

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