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Leading in a Time of Ambiguity

Living through a pandemic is shadowed by nearly constant uncertainty. We take three steps forward, two sideways and unfortunately, then three steps backward. Innovators have been able to pivot and transform their business models to meet the needs of their stakeholders. Organizations that have calcified cultures with command-and-control management models have been or are being easily eclipsed by agile competitors.

So, which category characterizes your own organization: Are you innovative or is your organization asleep at the wheel? What about your members/clients/customers? The key to getting unstuck during a global health crisis, financial meltdown, social unrest — or even in “normal” times (however one wants to define the new normal) — is the ability to lead confidently in a time of ambiguity.

Ambiguity Is Becoming a 24/7 Proposition

Recently mask mandates have returned, in-person events this fall have returned to virtual, and Covid cases, particularly for the unvaccinated, are on the rise. The market has responded nervously as recovery forecasts are in jeopardy and individuals committed to resuming some level of normalcy are now reevaluating their plans and decisions.

We may have thought ambiguity was ebbing and giving way to more certain paths ahead, but once again we have learned the need to embrace ambiguity is a constant. And sadly in many ways ambiguity has accelerated.

Ambiguity Outcomes

“The degree of uncertainty that we can tolerate depends upon our personal or organizational comfort level. Some of us try to avoid uncertainty, some of us tolerate it, but few of us actively embrace it. We can never shrink uncertainty to zero, because the future is always uncertain, but we can reduce it by turning to experts or sleuthing for information we don’t have,” according to Cheryl Strauss Einhorn in the Harvard Business Review.

International management consultant Korn Ferry adds, “Ambiguity is the norm in any complex organization, but clarity is still possible. It is about purpose, long-term direction, and values. At its simplest, ambiguity is a lack of clarity, which leads to frustration and, in the organizational context, heightened anxiety for leaders and employees. Our challenge as leaders, given this reality, is determining what we can be clear about to enable agile organizational responses.”

Navigating Ambiguity

We repeatedly stress with our clients that critical thinking applied to the people, processes and culture is essential to managing an organization when the marketplace is framed by ambiguity. Understanding how to navigate ambiguity, when an optimum outcome is a matter of interpretation, puts enormous pressure on leaders, managers, and teams. Personal interpretation is both a strength and a pitfall. Consider whether your personal interpretations are in the interest of your stakeholders or yourself. Einhorn adds, “Our decision will ultimately be a judgment call, based on our values. We have to drill down on what matters to each of us, or to our family, or to our organization. To confront an ambiguous problem, we have to invert our decision-making: Instead of focusing on the problem itself, we need to define what a successful outcome looks like — what is called your “vision of success.”

That sounds straightforward. Defining a vision of success is a lynchpin to mastering leadership in ambiguous times. If you develop a vision of success with the input of your teams you can work backward to developing a plan for success. In other words, literally visualize what success looks like and then build the pathway to achieving your goals led by that vision, always with the agility to pivot or change direction when necessary. That pathway may represent some very challenging decisions or actions and may fundamentally change areas of your organization and how it operates. But often transformative change is not easy and achieving success takes hard work and commitment.

Organizational designer Norm Smallwood says, “I’m seeing two types of responses—leaders who are ambiguity absorbers and leaders who are ambiguity amplifiers. Ambiguity absorbers reduce ambiguity for others by setting a clear direction, regardless of their level in the organization. Ambiguity amplifiers make the situation worse by insisting that others wait for someone else to set direction, micromanage and/or overanalyze. Amplifiers stir up resistance or freeze people from taking action.” Leadership makes a difference at all levels: “When there’s uncertainty about what to do and senior executives haven’t yet charted a course, mid-level leaders should not wait for direction. They should make assumptions that lead to a plan of action based on their understanding of what’s best for the business. This allows a team or function to continue to work productively. This is the essence of what it means to be an ambiguity absorber. Making assumptions about what the organization will do allows a mid-level leader to keep people working around a shared agenda during uncertainty,” states Smallwood.

At a time of increasing ambiguity, organizations need more absorbers that have clear direction to determine a level of clarity tied to their vision of success. Thoughtful action to proceed on the path to success must remain the goal.

Playbook for Leaders

We offer some food for thought below in how you can embrace uncertainty and establish your vision of success and the path you and the organization need to take to wake up and begin to transform.

Author Andrew Blum says, “Research shows that living with a permanent sense of uncertainty creates stress, and over time can even lead to disease in individuals and true dysfunction in organizations. This raises an important question: How can we find clarity in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty? The answer lies in the fundamentals of leadership and looking at things that are in our control. This can be counterintuitive because, as leaders, we tend to want to control everything. The challenge with this instinctual leadership response is that the more variables we deal with and the more we sense things are outside of our control, the more control and safety we seek. The reality here is that this desire for measurement and control often distracts us from the real challenge of finding comfort and productive action in the face of uncertainty. We get caught up in the idea of making uncertainty certain, but this notion puts us in a vicious cycle that has no end.”

At 2040, we have developed a matrix to help our clients navigate uncertainty.

  1. Know your intention as distinct from your goals. Intentions are stated as motivational and feelings-based: “Today I intend to make my teams feel valued and meaningful.”
  2. Understand your own response to ambiguity. Ask yourself: Are you empathetic or dogmatic? Do you assuage fear and anxiety or allow it to permeate contagiously throughout your organization? Are you decisive or do you waver and waffle? Are you a perfectionist or flexible?
  3. Be aware that you may not be able to provide clarity about everything, however, providing no clarity is unacceptable.
  4. Don’t expect to get your decisions right the first time. Get comfortable with uncertainty, tolerate errors, and don’t take criticism personally. Think incrementally, establish effective feedback loops and practice continually iterating innovations and new ideas.
  5. A shared purpose of your organization and its values are essential in delivering an effective outcome during ambiguous times. And leading a purpose-driven business helps people cope when times are challenging.
  6. Clarity about your long-term mission provides stability. That includes clarity about expectations, roles, and responsibilities of the workforce to maintain ballast during uncertainty.
  7. Communicate. Always. With authenticity and transparency.
  8. We cannot control the circumstances of our lives, but we can control how we respond to them. Focus on what you can control and celebrate contributions, innovations, and actionable solutions, large and small.
  9. Earn respect. You don’t have to be loved by everyone, but you need to be trusted.
  10. Educate yourself. Be curious. Don’t think you’re the smartest person in the room. Surround yourself with people who think differently. Expand your table and invite an inclusive group of equally curious individuals to explore how to navigate ambiguity

The Endgame

So, let’s jump back to where we started. Ambiguity is going to continue. Clarity and concreteness regarding the future remains hard to grasp. If an organization waits to take action it will result in staying asleep at the wheel while your competitors speed ahead and innovators upend your business model. Or worse, because of market changes, you may simply slip into irrelevance.

Let’s embrace ambiguity by creating a vision for success and by defining the pathway to realize that vision. At 2040, we deal with ambiguity every day and welcome you to the conversation.

Get in touch with us!

2040 helps organizations navigate the sea changes of finding their new normal. We offer actionable expertise in the strategy and operations of digital growth and engagement, empowering an empathetic workplace culture, strengthening your value proposition and driving revenues.  We’ve been in your shoes and we know what impedes transformation … and what unlocks it.

Onward and upward from the 2040 Team

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