Bridging the Crevasse of Ambiguity

Ambiguity. Doubt. Uncertainty. Any of these words describe that feeling of unease one occasionally has about meaning, steps to take, or the decision path forward. Anxiety and fear are often the emotions that result from these feelings. But the fact is, we live in an ambiguous world. Very little is clear-cut. We face uncertainty every day. We have doubts with regard to the “correctness” of our decisions or the changes that are impacting us.

We want to know. We want to be in control. We want to be right. But the truth is – we won’t always be. Rule of thumb: The higher the stakes of the decision, the less we will know. This suspension of control is what we leaders face every day. And, to be effective in our positions, we must become comfortable with this!

Isn’t this ironic? Our effectiveness is based on our ability to lead, however, many times our leadership decisions are based on less than complete information. That is ambiguity.

Photo Credit:  Scott Simper (www.scottsimper.com)

Photo Credit: Scott Simper (www.scottsimper.com)

Associate ambiguity with a crevasse. A bit of an extreme comparison, but appropriate to communicate the unknown that we often face.

Michon Scott has written a piece for the NASA Earth Observatory entitled “Out of the Crevasse Field.” In this 2005 article, Scott speaks with Robert Bindschlader, a veteran Antarctic researcher, about the trouble crevasses cause when exploring the Antarctic. The article states, “If every one were a visible, gaping hole, crevasses might merely be annoying, but when they hide beneath the snow, these cracks in the ice become deadly dangerous.”

So, if every snow bridge has the potential to hide a crevasse, how do the explorers continue? And, in a similar fashion, if every quandary is characterized by unknown information, how does one make a decision?

Think about your retirement investments. We apply our funds to investments that we believe will build and grow. But we don’t know for sure, do we? So we research, ask questions, listen to experts and then take a leap. We make a decision without knowing all of the facts. Are we comfortable with those decisions? Maybe – maybe not. Only time will tell the soundness of the choices we make. But make them we must. For if we do not, we fall mercy to influences over which we actually have no control. No choice is a choice that leads us to be at the mercy of time and tides.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

Steve Jobs, 2005 Stanford University Commencement Address

So how does one deal with ambiguity? How does one stack the deck toward “having the dots connect” without the benefit of hindsight?

We must lessen our anxiety about ambiguity. Remember Chip Conley’s book, Emotional Equations? The “Anxiety = Uncertainty x Powerlessness” is one of the equations to which I refer often. Following are suggestions for upping the certainty and reducing the powerlessness.

Breathe.

Ambiguity brings about stress. And our brains on stress are non-thinking brains. Therefore, take a moment to stop and breathe. Release that stress you have inside by going for a walk or run or spending time doing an activity that you love as it mentally “takes you away”. (My personal favorite – taking a shower.) Give yourself time for your brain to become a thinking brain again.

“Anxiety is experiencing failure in advance. Tell yourself enough vivid stories about the worst possible outcome of your work and you’ll soon come to believe them. Worry is not preparation, and anxiety doesn’t make you better.”

Seth Godin, V is for Vulnerable

Document what you do know and what you do not know.

A simple T-chart documenting the known and unknown will bring clarity to your situation.  Maybe the “unknown” is discoverable through research of best practices or seeking the guidance of those knowledgeable in the area.

Focus on what you do know. Acknowledge the existence of ambiguity. We will not have all of the answers. Some of our decisions will be right and some will be wrong. But learning is an outcome of those wrong decisions. What we learn from ambiguity pads our experience level for the next challenge.

“You can’t predict the future with certainty but you can decide to act in this moment with what you know today.”

Alli Polin

Be open to change and adaptation.

In ambiguous situations, one moves with the flow. As new information is uncovered, one adapts.

For those lovers of HGTV’s Property Brothers and Love It or List It shows, we see homeowners wanting certainty at each step of the process. However, around every turn they are faced with the reveal of something previously unknown – a load bearing wall, electrical that needs to be replaced, water damage, termites. And now that this is known, they must deal with it. Plans are modified. Additional expenses may be incurred. Other previously planned events are postponed or cancelled. Uncovering the unknown requires modification of plans – i.e., change agility.

“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

Test the waters with small before moving to big.

It’s ok to take risks. However, the size of the decision parallels the size of the risk. You might want to start with smaller risks, as opposed to making a big jump.

Think of the mountain climbers and the crevasses they may face. Would they march out onto the snow bridge without any thought of measuring the depth? Of course not. Their path forward is studied and strategic. Small steps add up to big progress.

Are there intermediate actions that will allow you to test the credibility of your impending decision?

“The best way to develop a tolerance for ambiguity is to make mistakes early, cheaply, and often. To learn that failure is a blessing, if it helps you grow. To learn that failure in pursuit of a worthy goal is noble and that questions are more important than answers.”

Jeff Sandefer

Broaden your comfort with the ambiguity skill set by “experiencing different”.

Remove the paralyzing effect of ambiguity. Act.

Experiencing different comes in many forms, but it requires being an observer of self and others, being vulnerable and open about areas of discomfort, and having the confidence to let go and enjoy the ride.

“Take advantage of the ambiguity in the world. Look at something and think what else it might be.”

Roger von Oech

Of course, the best guidance on dealing with ambiguity is summed up in this quote:

 “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Yogi Berra

(Note: When I came upon Scott Simper’s photo through Stephanie Pearson’s blog, I knew this was the perfect image to communicate my message of ambiguity.  Awe-inspiring, yet terrifying.  Thank you to Scott for his permission to include this photo.  And thank you to Stephanie  for directing me to Scott.  Please take a look at their websites.  They each do incredible work!)

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