Ambiguity is Not Always Bad

The are so many challenges of ambiguity – it’s confusing and it can cause all manner of communication problems. Ambiguity is irritating, it’s confounding; but in certain situations ambiguity leads to creativity, and that’s often where the diamonds get mined.

Ambiguity is not always bad. In fact, when creative problem-solving is required, ambiguity can be a powerful stimulant to your imagination. Especially in the germinal phase of the creative process, a little ambiguity can be just the ticket. It can force your brain to ask questions like:

  • What’s going on?
  • What does this mean?
  • How else can this be interpreted?
  • How can I work with this constraint?

Most of us have learned to avoid ambiguity because of the communication complications it causes. Creating contracts, writing documentation, and giving directions are all situations in which we should avoid ambiguity. In an emergency a pilot doesn’t want to be ambiguous in her instructions – that’d lead to some pretty disastrous results!

But in situations requiring innovative approaches, too much specificity can stifle imagination. What’s more, it’s pretty clear that leaders are increasingly facing the “new normal” of constant change. Your ability to handle paradox and complexity, sudden shifts in markets and competitive disruption can be the difference between success and failure in leadership.

We need to cultivate a new relationship with uncertainty.

Look at things in the everyday world around you and think – what else might it be? Picasso saw bicycle bars as bull’s horns. Children are great at using this ambiguity muscle. Cultivate your own sources of personal ambiguity, anything that forces you to look for more than one meaning in order to understand what’s going on. Ask, “How can I reverse my viewpoint?”

Give your team chances to work with ambiguity. How else can you get them to think creatively about how they’ll access resources to solve the challenge at hand? Steer people (and yourself) away from black-or-white thinking that so often leads to poor decisions. Challenge assumptions.

Practice making decisions without all of the hard data. Then be open to course correction once you have decided. Seek the second right answer. Perfectionism and “the one right answer” are enemies of creative problem solving. Say, “yes, that’s a great answer – what’s another great answer that would also work?”

Tolerance of ambiguity is an important element in creativity and open-mindedness. Finding ambiguity is an important part of thinking something different.

Summing-up: We’re programmed to get rid of ambiguity, and yet if we engage with it we can make better decisions, we can be more creative, and we can even be a little more empathetic.


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