Strategic Thinking (Part 1): A Fight with Ambiguity

| Read Part 1 | Read Part 2 | Read Part 3 | Read Part 4 | Read Part 5|

Strategic thinkers in organizations face many vague, conflicting signals. They have to manage the ambiguity both in strategy formulation and  strategy execution.

A simple definition of ambiguity is that it signifies words, concepts, and situations that have multiple meanings. The Latin prefix ambimeans both. For example, an ambidextrous (“both right”) person writes well with both hands, and an ambivalent attitude (“values both”) is one that is indifferent towards the merits of a choice. For example,

When a person “fights with” ambiguity, does that means that they are on the same side, the opposing side, or that ambiguity is a tool for fighting?  All of these meanings are possible.

Learning to Cope with Ambiguity

In entry- to middle-level positions, people succeed by matching knowledge and skills to situations. As people develop in their executive careers, they must develop a more strong minded and intuitive approach to strategic thinking. Specifically, they

“must expect to encounter ambiguity as they transition to more complex situations in their organizations. Strategic leaders must do a great deal of consensus building… to uncover information not previously held, perspectives not previously understood, and knowledge not previously applied to the solution-generating task. The challenge to strategic leadership is recognizing that the decision maker cannot have a “stand-alone” perspective.

            —Strategic Leadership and Decision Making
US Air Force’s National Defense University

To paraphrase, the strategic thinker understands that the strategic environment is interpreted by people and their subjective biases. The initiative leader’s job is to reduce ambiguity by uncovering information, perspectives, and knowledge. For example, strategists spend much time and effort using tools of context analysis to interpret the threats and opportunities. Mastering ambiguity requires strong mindedness. Gradually, the team achieves a more complete and coherent understanding

Academics tell us that organizations do poorly at implementing strategy.  Few of these scholars recognize the role of individual perspective: each individual has their own worldview that influences how they make sense of ambiguity. Thus,

Strategy– the process of getting important things done – is largely a language game. In this game, leaders use conversation to 1) foster understanding different individual perceptions of a problem or opportunity and 2) gain commitment toward finding a solution.

Ambiguous Goals

Sometimes leaders are sloppy with their language, but sometimes their ambiguity is intentional. What would you think if the CEO of your organization announced,

Our vision is to be Number 1.”

You could interpret this statement in several ways:

  • Being #1 could mean “to possess the largest market share.”  If that is the case, you need to define both core markets and adjacent markets.  If you sell into numerous markets, this becomes a very fuzzy mandate.
  • Being #1 could be a ranking on a list. The phone maker Nokia is ranked as the #1 most-trusted brand in many countries, but that trust has not created business advantage (in February 2011, its business difficulties drove it into the arms of Microsoft).
  • Being #1 could mean short-term profitability in an industry group. This could be achieved by massive cost-cutting of R&D, but might destroy the capability to innovate with new products.  That might not be good for long-term performance.
  • Being #1 could be an attempt to inspire people. Perhaps the CEO did not intend to make this a strategic initiative; perhaps the CEO only wanted to encourage people to make their best efforts.

Let’s assume this goal to “be #1” really is a strategic initiative and you are assigned to lead the program. Your top priorities should be to recognize ambiguity, clarify the metrics, and develop sensible action plans.

Balancing the Polarities

Many people like things “black and white, with no shades of gray.”  These are the people who will often struggle the most when in an ambiguous situation.  So, your job is balancing two polarities:  The first is an attitude that is tolerant and patient. Leaders realize that they can’t let a rush to closure force them into a bad decision.

“The creative person is willing to live with ambiguity. He doesn’t need problems solved immediately and can afford to wait for the right ideas.
– Abe Tannenbaum

The second polarity is the active resolution of tensions. It is important for the leader to step up with some structure and direction.  The leader starts the process of asking strong minded questions and encourages others to probe into the unknown and the assumptions.

The goal: a flexible plan that sets a direction but is open to new learnings.

How is this balance practiced? It might take some confident statements such as,

  • “The company has selected you to join this team because you are smart and have performed well in the past. If we trust each other, we will get this figured out.”
  • “Although we just started our planning, I’m positive that when we’re done we will have a detailed roadmap for implementing this initiative.  We have a lot of questions, and we will learn the answers to those questions.”
  •  “A lot of smart people have worked hard on strategy formulation.   Let’s resolve ourselves to doing a good job, and that includes managing the threats and the opportunities.”

Someone once quipped, “Give me ambiguity or give me something else.” How do you fight with ambiguity?

This post originally appeared in the Linked2Leadership blogazine.

Please bookmark this article with your social media. It is noticed and appreciated!

Advertisements

About Greg Githens

Thought leader who helps others think strategically, make strategy, and turn vision into action. Coach, advisor, board member, and hands-on leader. Seminar leader and speaker of popular offerings "How to Think Strategically & Apply Business Acumen" and "Leading Strategic Initiatives (Program Management)." Experience in driving change in Fortune 500 and mid-size companies through strategic initiatives and business transformation.
This entry was posted in Competencies of Strategic Initiative Leaders, Interpreting Strategy Documents, Strategy, Ambiguity, and Strong-Minded Thinking and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Strategic Thinking (Part 1): A Fight with Ambiguity

  1. Pingback: Strategic Thinking (Part 2): Framing Decisions with the Four Types of Ambiguity to | Leading Strategic Initiatives

  2. Pingback: Strategic Thinking (Part 2): Framing Decisions with the Four Types of Ambiguity to | objetoa.net

  3. Pingback: I’m Right, You’re Wrong! « Martin Webster, Esq.

  4. Pingback: Vice President, Director, Manager of Strategic Initiatives: Position Description Best Practices | Leading Strategic Initiatives

  5. Pingback: The Importance of Strategic Thinking and Planning « Ed Robinson's Blog

  6. Pingback: Two Tools for Describing Strategic Context (Strategic Thinking Part 3) | Leading Strategic Initiatives

  7. Pingback: Interpreting Strategy Documents: A Key Skill for Implementation | Leading Strategic Initiatives

  8. Pingback: S.L.I.D. – The Four Leadership Roles of the Strategic Program Manager | Leading Strategic Initiatives

  9. Pingback: Does Your Strategic Initiative Need a Fresh Perspective? | Leading Strategic Initiatives

  10. Pingback: A Concise Guide to the Differences between Programs and Projects | Leading Strategic Initiatives

  11. Pingback: Eight Distinctions between Portfolio Management & Program Management | Leading Strategic Initiatives

  12. Pingback: Pillars of Strategic Initiative Success | Leading Strategic Initiatives

  13. Pingback: Resolving Ambiguity and Uncertainty (Strategic Thinking – Part 4) | Leading Strategic Initiatives

  14. Pingback: Director Business Transformation: Position Description & Relationship to Strategic Initiatives | Leading Strategic Initiatives

  15. Pingback: How to Build Consensus in the Strategic Initiatives Team | Leading Strategic Initiatives

  16. Pingback: How to Be Strong Minded (3 Capabilities and 5 Tips for Strategic Thinking) | Leading Strategic Initiatives

  17. Pingback: Leadership Thought #271 – The Importance of Strategic Thinking and Planning « Ed Robinson's Blog

  18. Pingback: A Powerful Idea for Your Strategic Initiative: Program = Brand = Trust | Leading Strategic Initiatives

  19. Pingback: Path Finding and Way Finding | Leading Strategic Initiatives

  20. Pingback: Case Study: Strategic Initiative Kickoff in a Global Joint Venture | Leading Strategic Initiatives

  21. Pingback: The Four Driving Questions for Success | Leading Strategic Initiatives

  22. Pingback: How to Develop Completion Criteria and Success Metrics | Leading Strategic Initiatives

  23. Pingback: Use the Prospective Hindsight Technique to Improve Your Vision Statements and Story Telling | Leading Strategic Initiatives

  24. Pingback: Strategic Thinking: Seven Questions for Your New Year’s Resolution | Leading Strategic Initiatives

  25. Pingback: Absolut Vodka’s Search for Strategic Insights: Lessons for the Strategic Thinker | Tools for strategic and strong-minded thinkers!

  26. collins says:

    THIS HAS BEEN HELPFULL WITH MY STUDIES

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s