Dealing with Ambiguity: The New Business Imperative

by Colin Shaw on September 9, 2013

Dealing with Ambiguity: The New Business ImperativeChange is the only certainty in this world today and the pace of change is ever increasing. We all know that change isn’t easy. Every day that passes we need to deal with an increasing amount of ambiguity. Ambiguity creates complexity and means decision making is difficult. Ambiguity creates uncertainty and stress. However, to be successful in business today you need to be good at dealing with ambiguity. How well do you deal with it?

Are you like me? I have a structured mind. I like things in order. I like things to be black and white. But over the years I have learned that life isn’t like that. I always remember a number of years ago when I was working in the corporate world I was discussing with my boss the latest in a series of reorganizations. I had just been promoted into senior management and I was trying to understand what my responsibilities would be. With my personality, as you can imagine, I wanted it to be clear, black and white… I always remember my boss looking at me and saying “Colin, in a senior position you need to deal with ambiguity”. At the time, the feedback hurt a bit, but as I reflected on this conversation I realised he was 100% right and over the years I have learnt to deal with ambiguity.

I know I am not alone in this struggle as people like certainty. People like a definitive yes or no; right and wrong; many people like to paint by numbers, to have it laid down in front of them…. You need to do A, then B, etc.

Increasingly, though, the business world isn’t like that. Business today is becoming more and more complex. For example; matrix organizations often blur the lines of responsibility and leadership. There are many internal complexities in corporate life and there are many more external complications. We now deal with a growing number of multi-channels with customers, each with their own set of priorities and responsibilities. Even the relationships you have with your competitors aren’t cut and dried. There are some companies that you compete with in one market but collaborate with in another. And any single item mentioned here could change tomorrow with little warning, replaced instead with a new challenge.

Recently I have reflected on the fact my clients also feel the pressure of managing a complex business world. For example, I have just finished a Customer Experience Management Certification course with one of the largest companies in the world. Their people were looking for a ‘recipe book’ of things to tell them how and when they must do things; a step-by-step guide for the customer experience that is broken down in the same way a Lego set explains how the pile of plastic bricks can be constructed into a fire engine or the Death Star. They wanted to be told, do this, then that…..

To this client I was deeply empathetic but sadly unable to comply!

I told them that improving the Customer Experience is not like that. It is complex. There is no set guide for it. If there was, everyone would be doing it already. Over the weeks in our training we gave them a series of tools, the ingredients they need progress and we told them they now have to apply these tools in the best way. Sometimes they don’t fit exactly and you have to adapt them to the situation. We made the point that this means they need to think about it and decide which tool is best for each occasion. In other words, they have to make a judgement call. I have to say they were initially concern but after coaching became comfortable in this new environment.

This is why in a world where your competition can also be your partner, where we have worldwide matrix management, where a company’s goals can be conflicting, a major skill that everyone needs to learn is dealing with ambiguity. So how well do you deal with it?

Melanie Allen, a Life Coach who specializes in Career Development, has an interesting article called, “Dealing with Ambiguity and Developing Resilience” that covers this topic well. She advises that the best leaders are those that rise to the challenge of ambiguity and respond with confidence and adaptability.

I agree with Melanie but what she suggests doing and actually doing it can be more challenging than it sounds.

Here are my 10 tips for dealing with ambiguity for today’s leaders. As you read these consider how well you perform against these.

  1. Suppress your urge to control things. People like to feel in control of their businesses. Often, this results in stress when ambiguity enters the scene. The business world is getting more complex not less and therefore you need to suppress you let go of the notion that you are ‘controlling everything’.
  2. Learn to act without the complete picture. In an ambiguous world you will never have all the information you need for absolute certainty. Don’t wait for that final bit of hard data that will tell you what to do because it may never come. Get all the information available, make the best decision you can and act on it.
  3. Understand that some of your decisions will be wrong. Now that you made the best decision you can, realize that it might be wrong. But sometimes a wrong decision is better than no decision. Ambiguity means sometimes you will make the wrong decision. Don’t let that put you off. Being a good business person is about making more right decisions than you do wrong. Get comfortable with making mistakes by looking at them as learning opportunities.
  4. Work on your flexibility. Be willing to change course as more information comes to light. Don’t let pride delay you from correcting your course. Ambiguity can reveal facts at any time that are going to affect your best decision. Be willing to accept these gifts and incorporate them into your direction and make the necessary changes.
  5. Learn to deal with uncertainty. To deal with ambiguity you need to be comfortable with uncertainty. My natural urge is to control everything, but I can’t. So I cope with this by being prepared for what I can.
  6. Realize there is not a defined plan you need to follow. Make your peace with the fact that there is no defined ‘right and wrong’. As I told my client who wanted a handbook that gave them all the answers, it isn’t that simple. In my world, there is no recipe book to follow for improving the Customer Experience.
  7. Be confident in yourself and your abilities. Part of learning to deal with uncertainty is to have confidence in your ability to respond to what you can’t control. Confidence is a huge asset to a person in business and life in general. The best article on confident people I have ever read is ‘9 Qualities of Truly Confident People’, by Dharmesh Shah. Dharmesh says that confident people are not afraid to take a stand, are good listeners, avoid the spotlight, ask for help and aren’t afraid to be wrong. They also avoid putting others down and own their mistakes. Having these qualities will help you adapt and respond to a market you can’t control, whose future is ambiguous.
  8. Listen to your voice. People talk about their ‘guts’ or ‘making a gut decision’. What you attribute to your gut is really your subconscious looking at inputs from around your world. Our processing power is powered 95% from our subconscious, or your brain looking at information ‘offline’, processing it and then telling you what to do. Therefore, listen to it. This is the wealth of your knowledge speaking in a small voice. Listen to the voice.
  9. Listen to advice. At Beyond Philosophy we use a phrase ‘None of us are as clever as all of us’. Do you think that because you are the boss you have all the best answers? You don’t. Be comfortable with people being cleverer than you and use this as a resource. Surround yourself with good people and remember you have two ears and one mouth for a reason. Listen to what your people say. Weigh up their concerns. Embrace the people who look at the world differently because it’s always great to get a contrary view or a view from outside the box as it can be the answer or half way to the answer. Also, don’t steal their ideas. Give them credit so they will carry on giving you lots of great new ideas going forward.
  10. Learn to deal with your stress. Even if you do all of these things, ambiguity can still cause stress, as the world is uncertain. Learn to manage this stress by having outlets to relieve your stress. When you are relaxed you are far more able to respond to problems and challenges with successful solutions. Investing some time in cultivating a relaxed state of mind is important to your leadership skills.

Ambiguity is challenging by definition but you can learn to deal with it. In my view it is becoming an increasingly important skill particularly as you progress to more senior positions. I hope these tips help you as they have helped me…

How well do you deal with ambiguity? Do you have any tips on how to deal with ambiguity?

Colin Shaw is founder & CEO of Beyond Philosophy, one of the world’s first organizations devoted to customer experience. Colin is an international author of four best-selling books & recognized Business Influencer by LinkedIn. Beyond Philosophy provide consulting, specialised research & training from our Global Headquarters in Tampa, Florida, USA.

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Colin ShawDealing with Ambiguity: The New Business Imperative