How embracing ambiguity can lead to more creative solutions in leadership

When?As human beings we like having a sense of predictability and control.  And yet,  currently in business – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are all too prevalent.

The good old “cookie cutter” solutions just don’t fit anymore as leaders are having to respond and find effective solutions  facing their business and industry.

In this context when faced with the unfamiliar requiring a new and different response, we can  feel somewhat fazed and put out. The old instinct kicks in as we try to re-create a sense of order,  familiarity and control.

In our discomfort with ambiguity  we may find ourselves reaching out to the old, familiar solutions.

But what if by doing this we are missing out by not seeing the new possibilities that are present.

“There’s ultimately little value in trying to force certainty to come before it’s time.”
– Barbara F. Schaetti, Sheila J. Ramsey and Gordon C. Watanabe

(I am referring to ambiguity in  non-crisis situation here –  not the critical, life  and death ones or where there are  major repercussions of no immediate action.  In these instances, of course we want our leaders to take responsibility and accountability, communicate and take rapid action to move from ambiguity to clarity).

Barbara F. Schaetti, Sheila J. Ramsey and Gordon C. Watanabe suggest the following in Personal Leadership  when faced with ambiguous situations – “anytime we are in transition and have not yet settled into our new reality, when we are on the threshold between what was and what is to be, we are in  liminality.”

The authors say “there is great creative power in naming and claiming liminal space. Doing so asserts that not knowing is just as real and legitimate an experience as knowing. It reminds us that however uncomfortable we may be with ambiguity, it’s the honest description of what is going on.”

Other agile thought leaders and philosophers have also said  similarly.  J.Krishnamurti, the great Indian philosopher had a simple message – that what we know imprisons us while not knowing leads us to the path to wisdom.

At a recent Coaching and Positive Psychology conference in Auckland, Dr. Travis Kemp encouraged participants in his experiential and thought provoking session on leadership, “to lean into our prickliness!” Challenging but this is where new possibilities and growth lie.

Colonel Eric G Kail – course director for Military Leadership at West Point makes the following three recommendations for leaders when faced with ambiguity:

• Listen well. Don’t create your own friction by hearing just what you want to hear from diverse voices representing valuable perspectives.

• Think divergently. The days of one best solution are gone for good; see the second- and third-order opportunities inherent in equally attractive solutions.

• Set up incremental dividends.
Celebrating success is important, especially in an ambiguous environment.


How about you? What is your relationship with ambiguity?

1. Where are you feeling challenged by ambiguity and change currently?

2. How do you find yourself responding to this?

3. Are you noticing some dis-ease and or a temptation to quickly impose a familiar solution?

4. Can you “name and claim” that you may be in a liminal space?

5. What if you relaxed into your ambiguity more? What possibilities might you notice that you have not noticed before?

Jasbindar Singh is a leadership coach and business psychologist who helps her clients achieve their leadership and life goals.

This entry was posted in Cross-cultural, Dealing with change, leadership and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *