If You Don’t Like Ambiguity – Try Something Else

When, invariably, I start my reply
with: “Well, you see, it all depends.” I often see the eyes glaze over and I can imagine the thoughts going through the other person’s head. “He doesn’t know the answer; he’s stalling for time; my situation is too difficult.”
The assumption is that there is ?right’ answer – or at least one that removes any doubt.
The reality, I believe, is that the major decisions we have to make in business, apart from the no-brainers like ?is there room for another hamburger chain in New Zealand?’ are about situations which are cloaked in ambiguity.
But when we are faced with choosing between fuzzy and confused truth (not at all neatly packaged and with all manners of loose ends) and simplistic and illusory certainty – we often go for the latter. As Bertrand Russell said “What men (yes, he said men) want is not truth, but certainty.”
When I look at selection of popular management books over the last decade or so I come to the conclusion that many writers have taken well-worn platitudes, given them veneer of current jargon and published the result as if carved on tablets of stone, brooking no argument.
I am thinking of creating new bestseller out of “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” or “The person who never made mistake never made anything”. Why not? Others have. Uncritical readers translate this into management by slogan – cosy truisms, which barely penetrate the first layer of thought processes.
While some may describe management as science, it is not like, say, physics. Gaping holes are left which have to be filled with hunches, judgements and, sometimes, leaps of faith. If it were otherwise what would managers do to earn their keep?
Key elements in the role of any manager are to make sense of the world in which his or her organisation operates and to signal broad direction for it. We do our people disservice if they are described in terms that make them appear as unshakeable facts. Not only does this breed complacency (at least until something goes horribly wrong) it also gives specious impression of control so that, in overestimating our ability to control our environment, we may well miss full consideration of the options available to us.
We can see, we think, all too clearly the difficulties with our current situation – the immediate concerns are hitting us over the head right now! Too often, though, we do not appreciate the potential problems with proposed situation – until it becomes the new current situation. The result? We oscillate between polarised views, sometimes holding diametrically opposing opinions over relatively short space of time. This ?oscillation’ is typically between:
1. An operational perspective and strategic one.
2. Centralisation and de-centralisation.
3. An entrepreneurial approach and detailed planning.
Unfortunately, in companies undergoing constant change, the organisational memory is often too tenuous to break the cycle. Uncomfortable as living with ambiguity may be, the alternative is likely to be false sense of security and an illusion of masterful control.
Peter Senge, writing in his influential book The Fifth Discipline talks about the systemic forces underlying business activities and how we frequently only see the surface connections involved. This leads us to take inappropriate action which may, initially, appear to be working but as more profound cycle kicks in the situation often worsens, and sometimes dramatically so.
Sometimes we can, with patient research and much thought, see the fundamental relationships more clearly, but we need to keep reminding ourselves that the world in which our business operates is generally too complex to be understood in mechanical sense. Anyone who claims to have developed “Ten Surefire Techniques to Improve Your Business” needs to be circled warily from great distance while being hosed down with healthy scepticism.
So, what do we do? Throw up our hands in submission? Give up trying to make sense of this strange world?
Absolutely not! Once we stop assuming that certainty is out there, that others can provide detailed way out of our own problems, we can escape from the paralysis that demands we find the right way. Tom Peters talks about ?fast failure’, ie learning quickly from our mistakes so we can get closer to viable solution (not, you will note necessarily, or even usually, the only solution).
A sense of ambiguity is virtually inseparable from this process. We can’t see precisely the whole range of possible effects that may arise from our actions but we are likely to gain practical insights at each step along the way – always assuming that none of our actions are fatal!
The sooner we let go of our need for absolute right answers with their neon-lit signposts, the sooner we can accept the tension inherent in most situations of any significance to our organisations and the more imaginative and penetrating will be our search for the range of workable answers.
As Pascal said: “There are great truths and trivial truths. The opposite of trivial truth is false but the opposite of great truth is still true.”

John Butterfield is member of the board of the Central Division of the NZIM and is consultant with The Creative Learning Network, which works with organisations to create profound shifts in performance. He was for many years the chief executive of GEC (NZ).

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