Sunday, January 27, 2008

Leading and Managing in the Age of Ambiguity

The Age of Aquarius of my youth is gone, seemingly replaced by The Age of Ambiguity. Everywhere I look I see multiple option sets without a clear “correct” choice. Life, it seems, has become much more complicated. More than ever navigating and succeeding in this environment seems to depend on identifying a range of options, not one single right option, then giving each a bit of nourishment until the winner or winners become clear. Doing so requires a different mindset and skill set, and can sometimes feel like playing a bluff hand at the high stakes table. There are some things you can do to help guide your organization through times of ambiguity when the way forward may not seem clear. Try these on for size.

Give people a voice. One of the things I really enjoy is bringing a group of people together to brainstorm or discuss a unique problem. Often times the discussion will wander off topic but I find even this can be beneficial. This type of open, possibly even chaotic dialogue can yield results – a new use of a proven tactic, an “off the wall hairbrained scheme” that has a nugget of wisdom to it, or a clearly spoken redefinition of the issue at hand. All are valuable and all are encouraged by bringing people, lots of people, together.

Define acceptable outcomes. Here my thought is centered on system behavior. It seems to me that organizations and systems that define acceptable outcomes or behavior but do not focus on policing methodology provide a more creative environment, allowing freedom to develop new tools, methods, and solutions. This type of open architecture is not right for all organizations or systems, of course, but would be a breath of fresh air to many.

Look for centers of energy. When the types of interaction anticipated above occurs it is natural that some ideas or concepts will begin to generate buzz. What that is telling you is that the idea is attractive. People are energized by it, attracted to it, and they will bring others with them. When you see this happening you know that people are engaged and committed, and can expect the idea to iterate itself naturally until the “marketplace” of the group agrees optimization has been attained.

Encourage different views. Diversity of ideas is always a good thing. Don’t limit what people are willing to bring to the table by moving too quickly or discarding suggestions without fair evaluation. Let people talk, let them explain. Challenge them with open questions, not ones with assumptions behind them. Think of it as a debate among equals and look for common patterns and thoughts to build upon.

Set the right environment and look for emerging consensus. Complex contexts often require new solutions. The leader’s job is not to create the solution and then mandate its implementation. The leader’s job is to establish an environment that will encourage the emergence of a good solution, one that solves the problem without violating boundaries and behaviors that have been established. When you see it emerging then your job is to nurture it and encourage its development.

My Dad used to pay less than twenty cents a gallon for gas. World politics was rather simple, you knew who the good guys and bad guys were. And, life roles were clearly defined in black and white. The world is different now in virtually every area and every way. “Complexity” and “ambiguity” define our world now. Living, working, managing, and leading in this environment isn’t as simple as is used to be. But you know what? I wouldn’t want to go back. I enjoy the energy and challenges we face today, the opportunities we have now that didn’t exist then, and the diversity of thought and contribution that surrounds us.

Ambiguity? Bring it on!

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