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!


About Greg Githens

Author, How to Think Strategically (2019) Executive and leadership coach. Experience in driving change in Fortune 500 and mid-size companies through strategic initiatives and business transformation. Seminar leader and facilitator - high-impact results in crafting and delivering strategy, strategic initiatives, program management, innovation, project management, risk, and capturing customer requirements.
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  26. collins says:


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