A is for Ambiguity

Ambiguity is the quality of being open to more than one interpretation. It results in the haziness of reality; the potential for misreading and mixed meanings to conditions. We can no longer see what is behind things, events just happen and they remain open to a number of different interpretations as to why. Traditionally we search for linear cause and effect models to explain phenomena within our environment, reductionism in management reduces our description of phenomena to a single dimensional perspective, this creates very brittle models that are black and white, either right or wrong.

When environments become more complex our traditional linear cause and effect models start to break down, become redundant and even worse a hindrance to the acceptance of not knowing. The end result can be a shock, aka a reality check. Due to their black and white nature, linear models do not fail gracefully. Complex environments require us to invest more in developing models that capture the context within which events play out. This means a switch from trying to analyze and understand the events themselves in isolation to understanding the space around them that gives them context (what artist call the negative space). This is where systems thinking comes in. Systems thinking places a greater enforces upon understanding the relations that give an object or event its place within some broader environment it is a part of.

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity” -Oliver Holmes

Instead of trying to describe and understand the event by describing its properties, systems thinking reasons backward, by first having an overview of the environment we can understand a system through its connections to other systems within that environment and thus understand it with respect to its place within the whole environment it is a part of. By looking at the whole environment that the event or object is a part of, we can gain multiple different perspectives (through each of its different connections) each perspective will give us a richer and more robust multidimensional understanding.

The net result is a containment or confinement of ambiguity to a limited set of possible interpretations. Even if we do not fully understand the phenomena, by having a deeper understanding of the context we are able to have some parameters within which to interpret individual event. Thus it is still required that we learn to make decisions without absolute knowledge and information and are able to hold two contrasting ideas. Leaders in complex environments need to be able to handle ambiguity and make judgments when the ‘facts’ are unclear or evolving, in other words not be overly dependent upon quantitative, fact-based methods of reasoning in supporting their decision making, but be able to respond to the overall context instead