Embrace Ambiguity and Be More Adaptable

October 14, 2016


We can learn a lot about ambiguity from Keith Richards, who once said, “I look for ambiguity when I’m writing because life is ambiguous.”

Since the Industrial Revolution we in the western world have been led to believe that the world (and all that it contains: organizations, families, bodies, etc.) functions like a machine. This metaphor implies that predictability and control are not only possible, but essential, to keep things running. You need someone in charge to make decisions and ensure that the parts keep doing their jobs. Problems are simple to discern and address: A+B=C. Change in a machine usually means something is broken, so it must be avoided at all costs.

We are now learning from the new sciences such as quantum physics and living systems biology that the world operates a lot more like an ant farm. Change just is. Prediction and control are not as important as understanding connections, patterns, and supporting the systems’ ability to adapt to change and uncertainty. Problems often have multiple causes with no formulaic solutions and can only be understood and addressed by involving key interests. Decisions often need to be made with incomplete information and require creativity and mucking around in uncertainty. Complexity can also mean that problems can only be tamed rather than completely solved.

The capacity to manage ambiguity is one of the most important skills one can have to navigate our working world. Some tips:

  • Be okay with not knowing
  • Learn to act without a complete picture
  • Realize that there is often not a defined plan for you to follow but be confident of your ability to respond
  • Suppress your need to control and predict things
  • Allow yourself  to be vulnerable, take risks, make mistakes, while always learning
  • Listen to your gut and your intuition
  • Ask for help; involve others in problem-solving and decision-making

Keith (I am on a first name basis) appears to have lived his life without being overly concerned with predictability and control—to say the least! But, I think there is wisdom in his words that reflect his capacity to embrace ambiguity:

You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need.
– Mick Jaggers/Keith Richards

—Mary Davis Hamlin, Senior Consultant

P.S. CNE has a brand new up-and-coming workshop that can help you to respond gracefully in ambiguous situations. Check out Improv for Leadership!

CNE is excited to launch 7 Actionable Principles for a Strong Social Sector!

We encourage you to check out the site and you can find a recording of our launch town hall here.

CNE Members: Schedule a complimentary hour of support and coaching around the 7 Actionable Principles here.