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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Dealing with Ambiguity

Graphic of words: Dealing with AmbiguityHow does one survive - - and thrive - - in this modern world? In my experience, it starts with learning how to effectively deal with ambiguity. This critical skill, which I introduced at the end of my last post, is important because; congressional leaders are unable to make tough budget decisions; good people can sometimes do bad things while bad people can also do amazingly good things (consider Lance Armstrong); Getting great at anything runs straight through being awful at it; The solution for today’s problem may not be the solution for tomorrow’s problem. In fact, for 90% of business it’s not clear what the problem even is, let alone what the solution could be; the only constant is change.  We live in a “grey” ambiguous modern world.

Let’s be honest. Most of us would prefer to be 100% sure - - about everything!  We prefer to know everything that is going on around us because it makes us feel like we are in control.  Most of us get really uncomfortable if we can’t wrap up everything we start into nice neat packages with a bow on top.  Unfortunately, the cold truth is that success and rewards go to those who develop the ability to make more good decisions than bad in less time than the other guy, using impartial information and few if any precedents or examples of how similar problems were solved before.

Please note that I did not say “make only good decisions...”  I said “make more good decisions than bad...” All successful people today have learned to live comfortably in the “Grey Space” by cultivating a well-developed tolerance for errors and mistakes - - both for ourselves and others - - and absorbing the heat and criticism that might follow.

Make no mistake, this is a tough but extremely valuable skill to learn and develop.  In the words of English Statesman George Savile - - “He that leaveth nothing to chance will do few ill things, but will do very few things.”  And we all know that “doing very few things” just won’t cut it in today’s world of work - - and especially not in a dynamic, energetic, and empowered culture like we have here at Newberry Group.  We must learn to thrive and act effectively in the “Grey Space”.  So how do we learn and develop this tough skill and effectively deal with ambiguity?  Michael Lombardo and Robert Eichinger propose some of the following in their book “For Your Improvement”:

Practice One: “Incrementalism”.  Research indicates that we do not grasp the essence of a new problem until the second or third attempt at solving it.  Plan on making a series of small decisions, get feedback, correct course, and get a little more data moving forward until you have solved the problem. Start small so you can recover quickly and build confidence that you can “handle the heat” and course correct.  You will not build this confidence if you start with “the” problem.

Practice Two: Recognize your Perfectionism for what it is - a roadblock to success.  Perfectionism is born of an obsessive need to collect more information than the other guy, thus limiting your personal risk.  Try to decrease your need for data and your need to be right a little every week.  Pick small decisions and try to act on them with little or no data at all, trusting your gut.  As discussed before, the real test in the world of business is who can make a good decision on limited or no data in a reasonable time frame.  That takes practice so start with the small stuff - - you will likely be surprised how often you are right.  (And if you find that you’re not more right than wrong, you need to read next month’s blog  :).)

Practice Three: Ask “Why?” a lot.  Evidence from decision-making research makes it clear that the better your problem definition, the better chance you have at finding the solution quickly.  Focus on causes, not fixes.

Practice Four:  Develop a philosophical stance toward failure/criticism.  Learn to crave feedback.  The faster and more frequent the feedback on small problems the faster and greater our learning.  Teach yourself by letting others “off the hook” when a mistake is made by focusing on what we can learn from the mistake, not the consequence.  In doing so, you will bolster your own ability to handle failure and criticism.

Practice Five:  Become Process focused, not results focused.  To work well in uncertain times means that you must recognize first and foremost that your work is never done.   If the only constant is “change” then that constant will demand that you jump from incomplete project to incomplete project. You must alter your internal reward structure so that you feel good about moving things forward incrementally instead of finishing it. In taking this approach, you will not only cease to be easily frustrated, you will also find that the critical few things that need to be finished – in the sea of insignificant many things - will be.  Trust that “through the process” the results desired will be derived from completing the critical few, not everything you start.

Working to develop your ability to deal with ambiguity will give you the will to confidently act when information is limited.  But like every well-developed competency, its over-use can become a weakness if relied upon too often or worse, exclusively.  A complete person or a complete organization fosters complementary competencies that provide balance and assure that strengths don’t become weaknesses.  One of the strongest complementary competencies for those that are comfortable with ambiguity is a strong sense for what is, and is not, a quality decision.  Developing this critical competency in our culture will be the topic next month!

Posted by: Chris Steinbach
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