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Embracing ambiguity in innovation

One key feature in all of my recent program roles is ‘ambiguity’. 

Ambiguity in this context is where there is a vision and set of principles or goals, but the rest evolves as the program evolves, discovers through a test and learn – Agile/LEAN start up type of approach.

Navigating and delivering outcomes where there is ambiguity is a necessity in today’s workplace and yet I see so many colleagues and staff struggling with it. 

They cannot seem to develop it as a capability/skill.

When I reflect and try to understand the why, a few things come to mind:

Fear of the unknown: We have been trained to build a solution as specified (waterfall type of approach) and then if the solution is not right we have the specifications to blame eg: detailed requirements. When things are ambiguous it evolves and the clear line of sight to the outcome can be lost. People seem to struggle to redefine a clear line of sight through test and learn – Agile/LEAN start up ways of working.

What gets measured gets done: People want to be able to measure success and if it is not clearly defined and tangible they struggle. They cannot see the success that comes from discovering, acquiring knowledge, building, testing and learning in short intervals where you ‘build and learn as you go’. They can only see success when something is physically built and it works as specified.

Fear of failure, people are scared to fail and if it is ambiguous then they can not guarantee that they will not fail. Traditionally there has been no reward for failure or as I see it learning. I love the example where an employee loses a substantial amount of money for an organisation and when they try to resign their manager says that the mistake was a very expensive training course. The manager encourages the employees to stay. This is a different way to view ‘failure’.

What do you think? Why do people struggle with ambiguity and what can we do as leaders to help them? Look forward to hearing your views.

Posted on February 19, 2018

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