Defined: Can make decisions, take action, and motivate others during times of uncertainty, incomplete information, and change.
“Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.” ― Gilda Radner
It is said that we now live in constant VUCA–a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Ineffective leaders are overcome with stress and are paralyzed by VUCA. Effective leaders know that they are needed most in times of extreme change and ambiguity. They know how to make decisions based on the information available, how to adapt, and how to focus team members on “north star” elements.
Leaders Skilled in Thriving in Ambiguity & Change
- Remain calm and steady in the face of uncertainty
- Thrive even with little direction or guidance
- Are flexible and ready to pivot as necessary
- Focus the team on what is under control, known, and unchanging
What Prevents Thriving in Ambiguity & Change?
- You’re afraid to fail or to be wrong
- You prefer following the orders of others
- Your organization or manager punishes mistakes or miscalculations
- Your personality type prefers tradition, routine, structure and detail
- Your personality type experiences high negative emotion
Self-Coaching Questions for Thriving in Ambiguity & Change
- Why do you think you struggle with ambiguity? Have you always struggled with it?
- Think of a time when you faced a difficult decision, with a lot at stake and little direction. How did you feel? What were you worried about? Did the worse happen?
- Think of someone you know who is strong in this area. What do they do that makes them seem effective to you?
Tips for Thriving in Ambiguity & Change
- Turn stress into excitement. When we feel confused and face uncertain risks it’s natural to feel stress. But you can’t let the experience of stress overwhelm or paralyze you, and you can’t allow negative emotion to manifest in the form of shouting, anger or rash decisions. When you feel stress coming on, remember to defuse it: take deep breaths, go for a walk, exercise. And tell yourself the anxiety you feel is just adrenalin for an exciting situation.
- There is no win or lose, only win or learn. Instead of viewing situations in the black and white terms of losing or failure, view your actions as experiments. Was Thomas Edison a failure during the hundreds of times he “failed” to create a working light bulb? Or was he learning from each experiment, getting smarter and gaining insights that eventually led to success?
- Take action based on what you do know. The writer E.L. Doctorow once said of writing a novel, “It’s like driving at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You can overcome paralysis and rally your team by taking bold action based on the information you have at hand. Often, with a little more time, you’ll have more information and be able to continue on
Example Goal Statements for Thriving in Ambiguity & Change
- I will increase my ambiguity and change competency by 20%, as measured by the next 360-survey.
- I will volunteer to lead a change initiative that faces high internal resistance and see it through to completion.
- Within 90 days I will present at least half of my recommendations/decisions with probabilities of different outcomes.
Developmental Action Plan for Thriving in Ambiguity & Change
- LEARN: Read the article “Disruption: How Smart Managers Unlock Its Creative Energy”, in the LEADx library
- LEARN: Read the book The Heart of Change by John Kotter (or LEADx book summary)
- LEARN: Complete the “Managing Change” course in LEADx
- LEARN: Who are the “change agents” in your organization? Ask them about their views on risk, uncertainty, and decision making in times of VUCA.
- REFLECT: Do your Big 5 personality results suggest innate resistance to ambiguity or change? People low in the Openness trait tend to be traditionalists. People high in the Conscientiousness trait tend to be perfectionists.
- REFLECT: What recent initiative or change have you struggled with recently? In what ways did it cost you more work, time, money, or stress?
- PRACTICE: Think of a major change initiative and map all the stakeholders affected. Who will benefit? Who will it cost?
- PRACTICE: Think of a change initiative and analyze the opportunities and threats. What would happen in the years ahead if the change was never made?
- APPLY: Join a committee tasked with solving a major organizational problem or planning for the future, to better understand future scenarios and outcomes.
- APPLY: Identify a major decision you need to make, or a complex project, and intentionally trade off some certainty for a faster completion date.
- APPLY: Stay current on rapid advances in technology and business by subscribing to online newsletter or to magazines like Wired, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review
- MEASURE: Evaluate how others perceive your development in this area with a 360-survey, or simply by asking your manager and peers for direct feedback.
Suggested Additional Resources
- Courtney, H. (2000, June). Strategy Under Uncertainty. McKinsey Quarterly. Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/strategy-and-corporate-finance/our-insights/strategy-under-uncertainty
- Dryburgh, A. (2017, Feb 28). Four Steps For Staying Sane In Fluid, Ambiguous Situations. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/alastairdryburgh/2017/02/28/four-steps-for-staying-sane-in-fluid-ambiguous-situations/
- Dubrin, A. (2018) Tolerating Ambiguity for Leadership and Professional Effectiveness. Staten Island, NY: Page Publishing
- Holmes, J. (2015) Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing. New York, NY: Crown
- Johnson, P. (2015, March 11). Avoiding Decision Paralysis in the Face of Uncertainty. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2015/03/avoiding-decision-paralysis-in-the-face-of-uncertainty
- Seligman, M.E.P. (2006) Learned Optimism: How To Change Your Mind and Your Life. London, England: Vintage
Suggested Internet Search Terms
Dealing with ambiguity, Managing change, VUCA, Managing stress, Analysis paralysis, Fail fast, Agile, The OODA Loop, leadership and ambiguity, embracing change