People describe ‘ambiguity’ in a number of different ways: as an inability to put something into focus, to find clarity, or to define it precisely. They say it can be hard to perceive a full context or ‘truth’. They talk about there being clouds of uncertainty or of the water being muddied. I’ve found it useful to reflect upon these varied mechanisms of ambiguity, and to sketch a structure of the locations of our discomfort.
We may lack the instruments that allow us to examine something: the wrong lenses for our microscope, a lack of focus on the telescope, a smudge on the lens or a crack in the glass. Or maybe the crystal is perfectly clear, but we lack the ability to understand what we see: the issue may lie in our cognitive abilities, the familiarity of the subject, an ignorance of context or history, or an unwillingness to ‘see’ what lies under the lens.
Or maybe our brains are not at fault, and our instruments are fine: what if there is some type of pollution or fog in the air that blocks our view? Noise in the system that prevents us from hearing, or clouds of smoke that obscure the truth? Maybe things that distract us from where we should be looking?
There may be a final challenge: what if the ‘thing’ we seek is itself not clear? What if it’s ephemeral, incomplete, out of phase or focus. Perhaps our minds, instruments and environment are all clear, all optimised and sharp, but the thing we seek to understand is incomplete and illusive.
We could conceive this range of possibilities as follows:
- That which we cannot imagine – it lies beyond our experience and acceptance.
- That which we cannot detect – our imperfect instrumentation
- That which we cannot perceive – obscured by the environment, we cannot quantify it
- That which is not defined – partial and ephemeral in nature. Unknowable.
These four mechanisms are imperfect, but may illustrate the nature of our challenge and opportunity.
If we hold a lack of imagination, we may thrive with collective intelligence, curiosity in culture, and spaces for dialogue and experimentation, all as strategies to penetrate the darkness. We can create conditions in which we can at least question in different ways, and surround ourselves with a culture that supports, nurtures, and permits this.
If we lack the right instruments, we can buy, borrow, or make new ones: to consider our distributed sensors and decide if they are calibrated, or designed, to look in the right place. For example, our structures of productivity and performance may be optimised in formal and directly observable spaces, whilst innovation and curiosity may take place in social and hidden ones. We lack the tools to observe the feature.
If the environment is polluted, and we cannot see, then we may need to rely on the eyes of others: we may need more diverse perspective and outlooks. We may need to address the permeability of our culture and boundaries. It’s not a case of just looking, and thinking, harder and better. Instead, it’s about doing so differently: crowd sourcing, utilising difference and dissent. Hacking and competing maybe.
If what we seek is not defined, then we may need structural Organisations that can tolerate ambiguity better: to thrive in uncertainty and change. This speaks to a distributed and fluid model of capability as well as dynamic Sense Making structures. Capability held not in certainty, but in constant dialogue.
This work is part of an ongoing exploration of ambiguity and how we navigate it and thrive within it. It seeks both a fuller understanding of the nature of ambiguity, as well as how our structural organisations can struggle to hold or tolerate it, at the expense of opportunity that may be hidden or held within it. This work is shared as part of a principle of #WorkingOutLoud.