How do we respond to ambiguity?

Imagine a meeting in a large company. At the top of the agenda: a new competitor is working on a solution with completely new technology. Market maturity is imminent. The need for some type of action seems obvious, but the situation is confusing. It is not clear what the next few years may have in store for the customers, the industry, and the market. 

So many questions are swirling around: Is the technology truly ready for the market? Is the competitor’s solution so desirable that it threatens our products? Is there even demand for this kind of innovation? Can our company master this new technology? Which strategy promises future success? Should we invest in the new technology or should we make our technology even more sophisticated, efficient and economical? 

Entire sectors and even economic areas are currently facing this type of ambiguous situation. And it’s not just technologies, but also business models and life plans that are up for grabs. Consider some of your own ambiguous situations. How do you react? How do the different members of your team react?

Now, back to that meeting, where various responses are erupting in the room:

Person 1

The new technology will definitely not prevail. We have mastered our tried-and-tested technology; the new one is too risky. We should continue to focus on our development plan. After that, we may want to devote ourselves to new options

Person 2

Let’s not rush anything. We should first be clear what this means for us. I suggest that we can hire some expert consultants to shed light on various aspects of the technology and develop a recommendation for us.

Person 3

Times are changing and we need to be prepared! We should put a team on it to that develops ideas; organize in a brainstorming workshop. Then we will have a common understanding of our options and can choose what to do next.

Person 4

Wouldn’t it be great if we saw this as an opportunity to rethink about our strategy?
If we open up to the possibilities, there may can be more potential in this than we previously knew. If we see this as an opportunity, we can set up some experiments and learn quickly from them.

What patterns do you notice within these different reactions?
We see four different preferences for dealing with ambiguity

Orientation 1: Avoid Ambiguity

When avoiding ambiguity, some people feel safe by focusing on the familiarity of business as usual.
They ignore ambiguity, intentionally or unintentionally, for example by…

  • denying it
  • busying themselves
  • sticking to technicalities

They prefer “how it has always been done” with clear rules and roles, especially a reliable hierarchy.

Orientation 2: Tolerate Ambiguity

When tolerating ambiguity, some people are eager to control it.
They are aware of the ambiguity, but focus on reducing it, for example by…

  • doing more research
  • regaining control through actions
  • minimizing risks

They prefer to do “the right thing” with as little risk as possible .

Orientation 3: Accepting Ambiguity

When accepting ambiguity, people understand that it can’t be changed so they work within it.
They explore the ambiguity as a constraint or challenge, but don’t act on it, for example by…

  • adapting to change
  • exploring the consequences
  • aiming for shared understanding

They prefer to explore and collaborate on new solutions.

Orientation4: Seek Out Ambiguity

When people are willing to seek out ambiguity they want to create new worlds and they understand that ambiguity is the context to do just that.
They enjoy ambiguity as a way to learn and create new opportunities, for example by…

  • embracing risks
  • shifting boundaries
  • mastering complexity

They create impactful change and move things forward in a pragmatic way. They are #AmbiguityActivists.

How do we use ambiguity?

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Ambiguity describes the area of tension in which problems are delicate, solutions are blurred and developments and information are contradictory. Not everyone feels comfortable in this area of tension. And not everyone has to.

However, innovation is only possible in ambiguity. Nobody creates something new without courage and risk.

For us, ambiguity is the uncertainty of opportunities. This uncertainty creates space to maneuver and design. We’ve spent decades helping teams navigate ambiguity and have developed CoCreACT®, an adaptable approach, that can be easily learned and applied to nearly any fuzzy challenge.

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