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Why am I saying that leaders need to create ambiguity when everyone knows leaders must be clear?

I am not saying clarity isn’t necessary or that it needs to be reduced, no! I am also not saying that you need ambiguity and uncertainty everywhere.

I am saying that sometimes a leader’s job is as much to make space for the in-between and the undefined; like removing some of the logs in a fire so that more oxygen can get through to feed the flames. I am saying that ambiguity might be one of the most powerful leadership tools – it’s all in how you do it. (I was rereading a wonderful book by Anne Pendleton and John Seely Brown. The chapter on how architects and designers use ambiguity made me think there are so many corollaries with the work of leaders.)

Take the indisputable value of purpose for an organization. We know that a clear and authentic purpose can unite the organizational narrative, achieve cultural cohesion, and provide a practical shorthand that guides decisions. But if we want to take it to the next level, to achieve that illusive deep emotional connection with people, that purpose statement needs to resonate with everyone in the organization (and possibly beyond). Somehow, people need to be able to find themselves in that statement, to find their story in your story.

How do you tell your story and still enable everyone to make sense of it their own way? How do they get inspired by your vision of the future, while also seeing their role in it through their eyes? What memories do they have about the past and how do those memories fuel the organization purpose or suck the air out of it?

The answer? Put a bit of ambiguity in it!

What is ambiguity, really? Commonly defined as doubtfulness, uncertainty, or lacking in clarity. The opposite of ambiguity is usually expressed as clear, obvious, definite, explicit, unequivocal, and determined. You could say unambiguous means one answer only, and ambiguous means more answers are possible. But a deeper etymological interrogation leads us to understand that ambiguity means to “move around” or “to wander”. In literary prose or poetry, ambiguity serves a very important purpose – to increase the nuances of the language by infusing it with complexity that expands its original meaning. Hence, when used well, ambiguity is far from just being unclear. It provokes; like an exciting puzzle that challenges a person to see beyond the obvious, and to grasp ideas from many different perspectives.

Are leaders more like engineers or architects? A study by Eris & Linden from Olin College found that engineers seek impact first and foremost. Their main goal is problem resolution and they do it by eliminating all ambiguity so that cause and effect can happen predictably. Architects, they found, are skeptical of too much clarity. They often “force ambiguity” into the system so that they will have to “wrestle” with the complexities, and hunt down the nuances. Their goal is to surface a design that wouldn’t have appeared had they not done that.

Food for thought – when is it helpful for a leader to think like an architect vs an engineer? When might we become so focused on a solution, that we run the risk of oversimplifying and missing important layers of the problem for the sake of expedience and clarity?

How could leaders use ambiguity intentionally?

Ambiguity is valuable both as a process and as an outcome

Ambiguity as a creative process When working in complex situations or with complex problems, take a lesson from the architect’s book and “force” ambiguity into the system. Don’t get pressured into simplifying for a solution. Instead, make the time to look under the nooks and crannies to trigger the unnoticed, to expose the unsaid, or to surface the stuff that people are willingly blind to (borrowing from Margaret Heffernan). Test the counter-intuitive ideas. If all your ducks line up too quickly and a solution emerges too easily, test it! Poke the bear (pardon the animal metaphors!) a bit to see what happens when it's stressed, or when it has to function under different assumptions. Don’t get scared by things that seem illogical or incongruent at first. These are good clues that multiple solutions exist, and that they are more profound and less obvious than the ones your competitors can come up with. Also remember that if you, or the initial team, can’t see the possibilities/intricacies, you need fresh eyes/brain/heart. Big clue here for the importance of diversity.

Ambiguity as an empathetic outcome Shared ambiguity can lead to empathy by connecting people who are all experiencing the same thing, while being free to interpret it in their own personal way. This can result in a great resonance of collective openness, acceptance and empathy, in a diverse group with different needs. The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. by architect Maya Lin is a masterpiece in using ambiguity as a core design feature – ‘who the memorial is designed for’ is intentionally unanswred. Veterans saw themselves and those they served with who lost their lives; family and friends of the fallen soldiers; other citizens who lived through the war; the next generation who did not live through the war but have to make sense of it; every visitor who has no ties to the names on the wall but experiences the memorial in their own meaningful way; and all who have an opinion of the role or purpose of war. In this example ambiguity is an outcome, and a very intentional one. A good leadership takeaway from this – next time you design a celebratory, commemorative, or farewell event, ask “how might intentional ambiguity add empathetical connection for everyone?”

Ambiguity as a force of transformative insights Ambiguity can birth epiphanies and transformative insights. This is invaluable for innovation. By holding multiple opposing concepts at once, and maintaining their inherent contradictions over extended periods, teams can be urged into creative territory beyond what is typical. Some examples of opposing or contrasting concepts held together:

  • Be a wall and a window
  • Scared and happy
  • Unique and belonging
  • Strong and soft
  • Predictable and safe yet fresh and surprising
  • Enabling and constraining

When two, or more, competing agendas are held in productive tension, the value of each is heightened by virtue of being challenged by the other. A leadership takeaway could be – make time and safe space for teams to explore the “magic and the madness” of what normally would be considered impossible. It is the ultimate “yes AND…” exercise of building something from unintuitive combinations.

Ambiguity as a tool of strategic cohesion You can be strategically ambiguous and still create alignment among people with different agendas, motivations and goals, by evoking one powerful central theme, and then leaving enough doors open so they can all identify in their own way with your statement. A good example of where this can be applied is how we design organizations. It is clear that organizations are adaptive complex systems (full of adaptive complex people!), and as such, they don’t thrive on hierarchy, dictates, bureaucracy, or detailed instructions. A better way to achieve an adaptable and resilient culture might be to leave more things open-ended… loose… ambiguous. One way to do this is to be very clear on 3 things: Context, purpose and principles. Instead of spelling out minute details of strategic plans, do everything you can to ensure people have a shared and deep understanding of what game they are playing; why they are playing it, and the few golden rules that are inviolate. And then leave space for the rest to emerge.

Strategic ambiguity may not result in the proverbial well-oiled-machine where all parts of the company hum along as intended, but it creates something much more precious – people who are all tethered by a deep resonating meaning while remaining free to win the game where they stand.

Where we DON’T want ambiguity Having said all that, there is one area where there must not be any ambiguity - and that is in everyone’s sense of belonging and psychological safety. People must be absolutely sure that when they take interpersonal risks (by experimenting, improvising, creating, challenging, being different) there is no ambiguity around how the organization will respond… that there will be no negative consequences directly or indirectly.

I believe mastering ambiguity is very much a leader’s job. If we think of this as 3 levels of mastery, the first level is to play with and respond to the ambiguity that emerges, but that alone is not sufficient. The second level of mastery is to intentionally create it, much like what this article discusses. The third level of mastery is to orchestrate it at scale. Orchestrating ambiguity at scale is a complex undertaking, guiding multiple realms of ambiguities into some kind of rhythm or harmony so that people feel free to riff, but not confused and lost. This requires practice, imagination, trust and guts, all important staples of good leadership.

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