Early in my career at GE, one of the leadership values the company mentioned, but never really emphasized, was a “tolerance for ambiguity”. There was never any coaching on how to develop such a capability. Even now, I can’t really find a reference to it on the web (though current GE CEO Jeff Immelt recently emphasized the need for leaders to be “comfortable with ambiguity” in a speech at West Point). Over the years, however, I have come to appreciate how important this skill can be for a leader and learned how to develop it as a strength.
Wikipedia defines “ambiguity tolerance” as “the ability to perceive ambiguity in information and behavior in a neutral and open way.” I prefer a more active definition, so I consider a tolerance for ambiguity to means“planning and executing appropriate actions in light of limited information.” The emphasis is on being able to move forward in spite of limited or conflicting information, as opposed to just “neutrally” recognizing that such a situation exists.
Ambiguity is all around us, whether it is in the form of uncertain business or economic conditions, unclear job descriptions or expectations, or vague corporate strategies. Today’s economic environment, which some economists have taken to calling The Great Ambiguity, presents an extreme case of an uncertain outlook. Your nature and upbringing can shape your natural tolerance for ambiguity. Education and early career experiences also play a major role. For example, accountants tend to have little tolerance for ambiguity as their education and experiences are based in clear rules. Marketers may have too much tolerance, and often resist moving towards metrics-driven processes. Engineers (author’s note: my education is in engineering) may surprisingly have the best background for developing this capability, as more complex problems require making assumptions to deal with limited information.
Whatever your background, you can improve your ambiguity tolerance. I have found the following steps to be helpful in doing so:
First, make sure all potential data sources are exhausted. Tolerating ambiguity is not an excuse for lacking diligence in data-gathering; well informed decisions are still better than the best assumptions. And I don’t mean just surfing the Internet. Get out and talk to customers about business conditions, or colleagues about roles and responsibilities. You will know you are reaching a limit when the incremental effort to acquire more data outweighs the value of that data.
Brainstorm assumptions you can make to close the gaps in your data. Depending on the scope of your problem, this may or may not involve others. Assumptions should be based on whatever known data, historical precedent, or “common knowledge” may exist (but be particularly careful on the latter).
Document your assumptions transparently. This serves two purposes. First, you will have a reference to go back and review and test as results occur (which may help to confirm or refute your assumptions). Second, this helps you CYA in the event outcomes are different than planned.
For important situations, consider alternate assumptions. This may take the form of “worst case” analysis, or at least analyzing a scenario where assumptions do not play out as favorably as in the “base case”. This can help you prepare contingency plans to react quickly to new data or unexpected results.
Define a process and rhythm for testing your assumptions. This process should define the frequency which you will review results, the metrics used to test results, and adjustments you will make as performance differs from targets.
Execute your plan. This step is obvious, but a reminder not to get over-involved in planning to the point where execution is forgotten is always helpful.
Let’s look at an example. Today, with many workers asked to do more with less time, money, and resources available, ambiguity about job definitions and descriptions is rampant. My own job description is vague, and frankly given the environment we work in I’m not sure it can be made much better. Here is how I have dealt with this ambiguity.
Gather data. I started by speaking with my manager about his expectations and measurements he would use to evaluate my performance. I also spoke with my predecessor about what priorities he placed in the role, and where he felt his performance was strong and weak. As a marketing and product management leader, I also spent time discussing expectations with other significant stakeholders in my performance, such as sales and engineering. This still resulted in incomplete or conflicting data (and usually will) but at least established some “boundary conditions” on the role.
Brainstorm assumptions. I then dedicated 30 minutes to summarizing what I knew and listing possible assumptions to fill in the gaps, based on needs I knew my employer had, past responsibilities I’ve had, objectives that my manager had in his role, and other related topics. For example, I knew that growing the business into new market segments was a key objective for my manager, so I listed developing and implementing marketing plans for new markets as one of my own objectives.
Document assumptions transparently. Once I had narrowed down the list of assumptions to those that seemed reasonable and achievable (allowing for a bit of stretch of my capabilities), I documented my understanding of roles and responsibilities and scheduled a meeting to review them with my manager. If he asked for any changes, I made those changes, and then emailed him the final document.
Define a process for reviewing assumptions. In our fast changing world, waiting for an annual review (if you’re even lucky enough to get that) isn’t enough. Therefore, I planned quarterly re-calibrations of priorities, where I would sit down with my manager and review accomplishments, comparing them to the responsibilities document, and discussing what changes were necessary in light of evolving business and organizational conditions.
Execute. Of course, everything else is worthless if I didn’t go out and deliver on my commitments. The responsibilities document is one of the few items I allow to clutter up my corkboard.
Ambiguity is a fact of life. Learning to develop coping mechanisms that enable you to perform not only helps position you for growth, it is almost a matter of survival in the corporate world.