Leader Volume 8, Number 3
Pizzuto is founder and managing director of CDA Management
Consulting, Inc. (Middleburg Heights, OH; firstname.lastname@example.org;
440-891-9166), an organization specializing in productivity
gains through creative workplace changes.
She writes and speaks on the topics of leadership,
teamwork, change, and shared values.
management challenge is to avoid typical platitudes such as
“Change is the only constant,” and to focus on actually
being productive in a changing environment.
This type of environment puts people in an ambiguous state,
such as: being in a
situation that is inexplicable, doubtful or obscure, or being in a
situation in which there are two or more possible outcomes.
It’s an uncomfortable state; it can hinder productivity
dramatically. So the
goal is to understand how to cope with ambiguity; how to be
productive while it exists, and how to reduce it whenever
A key step in
coping with ambiguity is to understand the root causes that create
the feeling. Some are
internal and some are external.
A manager can become stymied by risk aversion, linear
thinking, reliance on past, procrastination, and personal stress.
On the other hand the most common external causes are the
speed of change and the amount of available information.
their own paralysis when they’re not willing to take risks or
learn from taking risks. Managers
should do a three-question analysis of their own risk aversion in
order to build comfort with risk.
When have you taken a chance and it turned out well?
What did you learn?
When did you take a risk that didn’t turn out well?
What did you learn?
When did you play it safe and why?
Was it the right or wrong decision?
element in this exercise generally proves that the manager is no
worse off having taken a risk than not taking it.
Often, upon reflection, the risk would have been the right
choice in all three scenarios, successful or not.
The key here is the value of the learning.
We always learn when we take new action; we rarely learn by
being repetitive or safe.
like reliance on the past, are root causes because they inhibit
straying into creative arenas or new territories. They’re linked to risk aversion because they tend to be the
safer alternative. However
corporate-identified competencies clearly show that executives are
looking for creativity, new ideas, and challenges to existing
systems and processes.
is a cause of ambiguity, but is often disguised by the external
reasons of change and information.
In reality, regardless of the level of information, a good
manager can make a reasonable decision at any time.
It is procrastination that will prevent the manager from
deciding when enough is enough, or the time is now.
Managers need to seek out reasonable facts and figures to
optimize decision-making, but they cannot obsess over them.
Another common procrastination is getting started.
The “I-don’t-know-where-to-start” syndrome is
pervasive in many organizations.
We recommend two techniques:
Start with the
end in mind. Work
backwards. The other
alternative is to start in the middle, back-up to what you need to
know or have; and then move toward resolution.
The key issue of any ambiguous challenge is to start
working on it. Delaying
the attack only enlarges the ambiguous nature of the chore.
is what can prevent managers from seeing the “forest from the
it’s necessary for a manager to accept that the limitations are
from within. To
overcome these types of problems, you need to separate yourself
from the problem, either by time, distance, or attention.
If time allows, put the dilemma aside.
Out of sight doesn’t always mean out of mind.
Let the subconscious play with it for a while.
Another solution is to walk away from the project by
delegating, going somewhere else to think, or aggressively
finishing another project in the interim.
Most people admit their best and real thinking is in the
car or in the shower, etc. Just
go somewhere else to think.
There is some
legitimacy to speed of change and information overload being the
two external causes of ambiguity.
However, they should not create paralysis.
For example, if so inclined, any manager could do a chart
of the Standard & Poors performance for one, five, or ten
years back. The data are readily available.
However, all the information in the last decade will not
predict, undisputedly, what will happen in the stock market today.
A manager either makes an educated investment or keeps all
the money in a mattress.
Future of Leadership, White et al. propose a model of the
skills required for uncertain times.
Having the skill to learn constantly can quickly address at
least two causes of ambiguity: risk aversion and linear thinking. Energy allows you to
overcome procrastination. Focus
allows you to reduce stress and deal with the plethora of
is an excellent counterpoint to speed of change.
Inner sense and well being helps one deal with the reliance
on the past. To know
that each day is an accomplishment, reassures us that the past and
present can merge comfortably to prepare us for the future.
A manager should
become a full-time learner. Skill
sets change. Processes
change. Opinions and
trends change. What
better skill to arm managers with, then, to learn how to learn?
It certainly will smooth their paths.
to stress that not all work situations must remain ambiguous.
The timing of a company reorganization, or a potential
merger, may be out of the manager’s control; but the more
immediate job challenges, work processes, and staffing decisions
are always a function of management.
For example, one of the most common complaints is the
reluctance to hire because they’re not sure if the position is
at the same time, work is not getting done, or staff are getting
burned out trying to complete the work.
Then, morale drops, managers get stressed, they
procrastinate about hiring, and staff become resentful.
Then, morale drops, managers get stressed, etc., etc.
The best way to
reduce ambiguity is to follow some very basic steps.
everything over which you have some reasonable degree of control.
Focus in that area.
your perspective. Often,
items are blown out of proportion or totally ignored.
If events seem blown out of proportion, develop perspective
by relating your area to the overall performance of the
department, the company, the industry, even the universe.
Is this decision all that important?
If events are being ignored, just as hiring, reevaluate
your perspective. Determine
if lack of attention or lack of activity is causing more problems
than would occur from actual attention or activity.
the risks. A good
manager calculates risk and converts risk into an adventure, not a
negative fantasies. People
have the ability to imagine consequences worse than actually
occur. A “calling
on the carpet” is more likely than a firing.
Rarely when a manager hears someone say “you’re not
going to like this,” does the manager actually say, “I hate
it.” Most often it
is welcome, although not desirable, information.
manageable parts. Most
huge situations fraught with numerous ambiguous states can be
broken down into manageable subsets.
We can work on the new inventory system, but let’s hold
back on relocating the warehouse.
One way or another, we’ll track inventory even if we
don’t ever decide on a location.
for the unknown. After
all is said and done, something will happen that no manager could
anticipate. An inner
sense of courage and comfort with one’s own capabilities will
serve every manager during tough times.