Moving Forward during Ambiguous Times

Moving Forward during Ambiguous Times

Dealing with ambiguity was all the talk while attending an organizational leadership conference recently. The sponsoring organization announced one year ago that it was planning big changes. Six months later, it shared some of them. Now, senior leaders expect middle managers to implement change even while having only sketchy details. Many employees aren’t dealing well with this ambiguity and are waiting and resisting while yearning for specific direction.

This isn’t surprising. While some individuals thrive amid few details, they are likely a minority. Many find comfort and empowerment with guidelines and direction, even if it is less definitive than they might prefer. If enough leaders slow or halt acting due to ambiguity, it typically results in an organization failing to move forward as expected.

Moving Ahead Amid Ambiguity

Ambiguous environments involve high degrees of uncertainty, inexactness, indecisiveness, and unclear commitment to priorities. In light of this, we emphasized several recommended steps when speaking to the group’s employees. Since we suspect many of you are face ambiguity at various times in your own organizations, here is a sampling of the ideas we shared.

Better Coping with High Uncertainty

You can address uncertainty by gathering input from multiple parties with differing perspectives. This often provides better information to anticipate how the future strategy will develop and shape activities. Developing a tighter view of expectations can reduce uncertainty and prompt launching the steps to move forward.

A robust strategic thinking exercise we use in these situations involves individuals considering two future situations. They imagine two contrasting scenarios by looking backward to today from a future point in time. In one scenario, they look back from a future filled with unbelievable success, far surpassing every organizational goal. In the other scenario, they look back from a future time where the organization has dramatically failed to meet its objectives.

In each scenario, the group lists what factors they imagine contributed to each scenario’s development. This exercise works in a group setting or through aggregating individual responses to a survey or interview. Either way, the answers begin identifying variables the organization views as major success and failure factors. With this understanding, a team can better move forward while staying alert for the most important forces shaping performance as they do or do not materialize.

Mitigating Risks from Making Mistakes

Fear of making mistakes can also lead to inaction during times of high ambiguity. It’s critical that employees and teams make solid assumptions when answers are lacking. Incorrect assumptions, however, can lead to significant miscalculations and mistakes. That creates a sense that it’s safer to not act (and potentially make a mistake) than do something that’s not a sure enough thing.

An insight we shared with attendees is that while it’s easy to imagine everything has to go perfectly with a major new initiative, this is often not the case. While it is possible to intellectually acknowledge that rarely is every aspect of something perfect, it can be more challenging to recognize this when a mistake could be related to something a leader has personal responsibility for overseeing.

The strategic thinking exercise we offered to combat this tendency begins with a list of areas that might have to be perfect with a new initiative. These include expectations about the overall initiative plan or the plan’s results. In between, the inputs, development, participants, key tactics, implementation, and other factors are elements one could fret about trying to make perfect. We ask them to assess which ACTUALLY have to be perfect to deliver on an initiative’s objectives. Taking a hard look at that question generally reveals not everything has to be flawless. There is typically room for considerable variation in approach and performance as long as one or two parts of the initiative meet everything expected.

Exploring Alternatives to Push Decision Making

Another exercise goes well with the previous one on determining what has to be perfect. It involves prioritizing strategies that maximize flexibility and reduce the impact of delayed leadership decisions.

We ask teams to prioritize ideas and concepts on an x-y matrix based on the expected impact of each idea relative to the ease of implementing it. Using these scales on an x-y chart places the greatest priority on simple to implement, high-impact ideas. If your team is delaying taking action because of uncertain direction from management, a slight change to this prioritization matrix can help.

Replacing the ease of implementation scale with one focused on how easy it would be to replace, redo, or rewind and restart a particular idea if something changes. This change rewards potential actions based on those that are most easily changed if leadership decisions go in an unexpected direction. This can help a team focus on launching an initiative, albeit with initial tactics that might have to be reworked as more details become apparent.

Navigating Changing Priorities

Some strategies and tactics fit only one implementation scenario. Others could work well with any number of potential strategic paths. When ambiguity is greatest, choices that work in multiple scenarios offer a great advantage.

Have your team imagine a few realistic scenarios for how events might turn out. With that backdrop of potential strategic outcomes, evaluate how many scenarios each potential idea or concept could help move forward toward the objective. The ideas that are generally applicable across the most number of potential future paths are obviously prime areas in which to get moving.

Let’s Be Clear

We’ll be clear: we would love to understand either what challenges you see in managing ambiguity or ways you effectively deal with it. Are you trying to hire people better at dealing with ambiguity if you operate in a rapidly changing industry?

We’re certain ambiguity isn’t going away, so becoming comfortable with it is vital!

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