I’m completing work this week around ‘Navigating Ambiguity’, looking at the opportunity we may find, and the fluidity of structure that we require. Previously we have considered the nature of ambiguity (where it sits – in our heads, our instrumentation, or as a fundamentally emergent feature), as well as the ‘cost and consequence’, which considers how it may harm us, and why Organisations find it so difficult to tolerate or hold ambiguity.
Ambiguity may be experienced as a fracturing of the relationship between cause and effect, or as the lack of precedent upon which to base predictions. This would indicate that our ability to find opportunity is limited, as we never find certainty, but we could caveat that with our understanding of the taxonomy of ambiguity. Previously we defined four spaces:
- 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.
This would indicate that ‘ambiguity’ is not one thing, but rather a range of contexts, some of which may be more ‘learnable’ or exploitable than others.
If our ambiguity is held in that which we cannot imagine, then it indicates that we can out compete others if we are able to forge broad communities of diverse knowledge and collective ‘sense making’: if the challenge is that ‘we’ do not ‘know’, then by changing the ‘we’ (through diverse team structures) and the ‘know’ (by entertaining structures of fluid sense making and iteration), we may thrive. This will require us to consider why we don’t already have these structures, if they are so useful, and part of the answer to that lies in the question. ‘Diverse’ experience, knowledge, and worldview all sound good, until we actually run into them in practice, at which point it often collapses into opposition, tribalism and dissent. Partly because even when navigating ambiguity we are subject to the challenges of holding it! So we will need to learn, or be mindful of, the pain and challenge of holding difference and dissent within broadly coherent and resilient social structures of sense making.
To forge this trust and coherence (a term i use for high functioning Social Learning communties) should be dealt with before we expect these communities to function: or to put it a different way, we have to forge strength before we need it.
If our ambiguity is held in our instrumentation, then we should consider both technologies and social structures of detection, categorisation, analysis and action. Emergent Generative AI technologies can help significantly with the trawling and sense making of organisational chatter, streamlining and summarising, even providing so called ‘insights’, but they cannot replicate our individual, collective, and internal cognition. Sometimes the act of thinking is more important than the output of it: the artefact exists once, whilst our developed capability is carried forwards.
Our social structures are aligned to the formal Organisational structure, and hence may be limited by it: the notion of a Socially Dynamic Organisation is one that holds multiple concurrent structures, each of which may hold a different strength: finding our storytelling and narrative connections between these, the ways that they can hold and exploit tension in a dynamic way, is both challenging and important.
One way to understand this is to view our ability to navigate ambiguity as a landscape of competing narratives, some of which are backed up by Dominant Narratives that are held deeply within culture. For example, the notion that we need to ‘work’ in an office is a Dominant Narrative that has struggled to adapt to hybrid notions. Dominant Narratives are highly useful in letting us understand the world in efficient ways, but highly constraining when they become so wide and tall that we fail to even see that they are there. We can be constrained by our own certainty and existing knowledge, and not even realise it. It can lead to a lack of imagination, beyond the known.
Ambiguity held as that which we cannot perceive is equally an opportunity, if we have both our cognition and instrumentation in order. It speaks to the clouds that obscure the landscape, so our challenge is to understand where those clouds come from: are they natural, or have we generated them?
For example: our structures of codified power may be a cloud, within which certain voices are amplified or silenced. Other clouds may consist of our current knowledge and hence certainty, which can occlude or blind us to alternative ‘truths’. Indeed, understanding, and then fracturing, certainty may be a core mechanism of resilience in ambiguity.
The fourth aspect, that which is not defined, is probably the way we most often envisage ambiguity: as something hazy, out of focus, or unknowable. Our challenge here is not to squint harder, but rather to engineer structures of Organisation that avoid structural certainty and codified direction. Which is a challenge, as structural certainty and codified direction are kind of what Organisations are all about… we need them to be effective in the known domain. So in this sense we understand that to hold the capability to navigate ambiguity may come at the cost of some of our ability to thrive in certainty.
That would make some sense, as both certainty and ambiguity represent different types of landscape, and hence requires different structural and social adaptations to thrive. In this sense, what we are often seeking is the best of both worlds, but that may sub-optimise us in both domains.
This work is shared as part of #WorkingOutLoud: it’s a landscape being explored, not intended as ‘answers’. Overall, this is part of an evolving and iterative body of work about how our Organisations must adapt to thrive in the context of the Social Age.