How to Make Friends with Ambiguity

Steve LudwigCoachingLeave a Comment

A covering of small stones, one of which has a question mark on it

As Homo sapiens, we have developed sophisticated ways to predict future events based on past information. This skill has been key to our survival. Knowing the Nile River would flood every year allowed reaping the rewards of the rich soil; understanding the constellation patterns let early sailors navigate at night; and knowing herd migration patterns helped keep early hunter-gatherer tribes well-fed.

Predictable patterns keep us safe, giving us a better chance at long-term survival. We’ve updated those skills with sophisticated technology to predict the weather, understand when volcanos might erupt, and Google and Apple Maps estimating how long it will take to get to the in-law’s house for a holiday dinner—so you get don’t get there any earlier than you must.

All this predictability has continued to help us survive when the world throws curve balls, which is often. When we get too complacent, that’s when we get in trouble.

Humans have undergone so much rapid change since the early industrial revolution in the 1760s, we’ve barely had time to catch our breath. While the previous few generations could plan on long careers on the farm, in the coal mine, auto factory, or steel mill—those days are long gone.

What we are left with is a lot of change that we often don’t know when or where it is coming from.

Some of the change is massive, like “Black Swan” events. These events are rare, usually considered improbable due to their unique nature, and highly impactful. Their occurrence can profoundly alter the course of history, challenging existing systems and assumptions. Examples include the 2008 global financial crisis, COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, or major natural disasters.

There are less rapid technological changes that we have some time to adapt to, like fax machines, email, online shopping, and now, artificial intelligence.

Then there are the more mundane but more frequent challenges at the office that create ambiguity that require us to continue to move forward when things are unclear—canceled orders, unexpected competition, someone quitting your team, getting a new boss, supply chain challenges, etc.

All these events serve as a reminder of the limitations of our understanding and emphasize the importance of preparedness and adaptability.

So, when we are biologically wired to seek predictable patterns, how do we make friends with ambiguity? Here are five steps you can take to better embrace ambiguity:

  1. Cultivate a Growth Mindset: Embrace a mindset that views challenges and uncertainties as opportunities for learning and growth. Acknowledge that ambiguity can lead to innovation and creativity. Adopting this mindset helps reduce the fear of the unknown and encourages individuals to approach unfamiliar situations with curiosity and openness.
  2. Know Your North Star: Understanding your core values and the core values of your company can give you guidance on decision-making when things are unclear. Does the path you are considering in uncertainty align with those values? Answering that question will help provide clarity.
  3. Improve Communication Skills: Clear and effective communication becomes even more critical in ambiguous situations. Actively listen to others, ask clarifying questions, and express your thoughts openly. Effective communication fosters understanding, collaboration, and the ability to tackle ambiguous challenges collectively.
  4. Encourage Collaboration: Embracing ambiguity is often a collective effort. Foster a collaborative work environment where colleagues can share perspectives, insights, and ideas openly. Diversity in thought and collaboration can lead to innovative solutions and a stronger sense of unity when dealing with ambiguity. Research has shown people deal better with ambiguity better in groups.
  5. Break Down Tasks: When faced with ambiguous projects or goals, break them down into smaller, manageable tasks. Prioritize these tasks based on their potential impact and feasibility. This step-by-step approach allows you to make progress despite uncertainties and instills a sense of accomplishment along the way.

While many of us seek various levels of certainty in our lives—which is critical for long-term planning—we have to be honest and know that life will do what it does. Being prepared to deal with ambiguity will help us navigate when the unexpected arises.

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