Holding Ambiguity

Most of us like our decisions neat and tidy.  Get the information.  Make a decision.  Move on.  But skilled leaders understand that life (and leadership) are rarely that simple.  The ability to hold ambiguity, and to let go of personal preference in favor of a bigger goal are often key to making progress on the most subtle and complex organizational challenges.  Ambiguity, or the ability to hold conflicting points of view at the same time is, in appropriate measure, a key asset for leaders, especially leaders of change.

There is an article in today’s Wall Street Journal with a terrific example.  Online subscribers will find the full text here. The piece describes a 27 year old Baptist army Captain from Oklahoma who is helping a 51 year old Afghan Colonel who is also a Mullah to show that the Afghan army is made up of Muslims.  All this is a subtle and powerful way to combat the message of the Taliban that the Afghan army is full of “…Godless communists.”  But more importantly, in order to achieve a common goal, both men have to embrace the ambiguity inherent in their partnership.  They both must make their personal faith secondary to a bigger vision: a stable, Taliban-free Afghanistan.

Here is another terrific example.  Last year, I heard Rosalind Mouser, then President of the Arkansas Bar speak at a Rotary meeting.  She described the challenge of setting personal conviction aside when dealing with matters of law.  I wrote about that in my regular Arkansas Business column.  Mouser is clearly an ardent and faithful Christian with clear conviction in her personal life.  Yet she was equally clear that many pundits and politicians used the label “activist judge” to brand those on the bench making decisions with which they disagreed.

When I work with leadership teams who are pondering a significant change in strategic direction or a major shift in culture, one of the biggest challenges for them is to remain open to and even embrace the ambiguity that such a project will doubtless encounter.  Just because the plan makes rational sense, or because the ROI numbers are clear, does not mean that the organization will embrace the new direction, change attitudes or behavior and march to a new beat.  Change is a messy process and needs both rational and emotional tending to be effective and sustainable.

What tools that are most useful for embracing ambiguity and using it to your advantage?  Here are  a few things I have seen work well, especially with senior level teams:

  • Have a team ground rule that an easy answer deserves a tough question- do not settle for obvious and simple solutions.  A good way to do this is to be certain that ideas on the table are examined from the point of view of all four learning domains: Mental, Physical, Inspirational and Emotional.
  • Set aside your personal opinions at the door- or at least understand whether your value system is shared by the team.  Open dialog and genuinely curious listening is the key here.  Decisions that are hard fought tend to stick better because there has been room for everyone’s point of view to be heard.
  • Stay in “inquiry mode” as long as possible.  This means remaining in the visioning process longer than most teams are comfortable.  In a culture where action is highly valued, it may seem counter-intuitive to “linger” in the domain of questions, but in the long run, projects run faster when the planning process has been more comprehensive.
  • Invite the Devil to Dinner – This is a practice I learned from Janet Harvey who is today CEO at InviteChange but was then a VP and major change agent at Charles Schwab.  Janet taught project teams brainstorm to identify everything that could possibly go wrong, especially before a key roll-out and then to plan contingencies for it.  It may seem negative to expend energy on making an absurd list of such disasters, but the exercise opened questions that the team may not have considered.

Ambiguity is messy.  It is often uncomfortable for leaders who are used to clear direction and straightforward action.  Sometimes, simply aligning the troops to march up the hill is called for- and does not require a lot of thought or consideration.  But it is only when we get to the top of the hill that we can see what is waiting on the other side.  The closer to the top of an organization a leader is, the more panorama and subtle influence that leader can see and the more important his comfort with ambiguity becomes.

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