Have you noticed the tendency of people in the business world to fixate on words starting with the letter ‘A’? Agility, Adaptability, Ambiguity and Accountability come to mind. No doubt all four are worthy of a manager’s ‘A-list,’ but which is the most important? Ambiguity – that one A-word changes everything.

Countless business mainstays are disrupted by ambiguity – management loses its certainty, and leadership its confident vision, strategy becomes less about planning and more about judgement, and risk becomes undesirable at all costs, making the workplace benign and uninteresting.

But what does ambiguity actually mean? Or more particularly, how do leaders not only cope with ambiguity, but also genuinely master it?

What is mastering ambiguity?

Mastering ambiguity requires leaders to have the skills, the change leadership toolkit and the judgment about what tool or approach to use and when to use it. It involves:

  • Deciding to move forward when you don’t have the full picture
  • Looking cool, calm and confident when you’ve got no idea what’s going to happen
  • Inspiring your team towards a possible future
  • Reducing uncertainty when others simply marvel at how vague things appear
  • Accepting the unacceptable and finding certainty in the uncertain

Learning to master ambiguity?

All change leaders can learn to master ambiguity provided they are willing to accept a little discomfort. Five areas in which all cutting edge change leaders consistently display a high level of skill are:

1. Awareness

Great change leaders know themselves intimately; they know their tolerance levels and what makes them tick. Most importantly however, they know how to handle themselves and their shifting load.

2. Judgement

Ambiguity usually means that decisions need to be made, or not made, with less than the complete picture. Mastering ambiguity isn’t necessarily accepting this fact, rather, it’ about finding anchors and looking for what’s clear, and then backing your judgement. To use a simple metaphor, masters of ambiguity are professional gamblers, whereas novice leaders are amateur punters.

3. Resilience

Thriving in ambiguity is as much about mindset as it is about technical skills or experience. The mindset great change leaders possess is, “Things are sometimes out of control, but it’s better to make a decision than not to make one at all. The company bounces back from uncertainty and ambiguity when I demonstrate that things are under control.”

4. Navigation

Having a plan is always important, however when navigating ambiguity, the plan often changes because circumstances also change. Sometimes this means accelerating the plan or going in a slightly different direction, and sometimes it means throwing the whole plan out the window and coming up with a new one. Be on the move – set a plan, and tolerate the ambiguity while you relentlessly look for evidence that you’re on the right track.

5. Relationships

Relationships are the glue that holds things together when everything around you is shifting. Cultivate a network of broad and deep relationships and remember that structures change but relationships prevail.

Where next for change leadership?

A paradigm shift is underway in the area of change management and change leadership. Many of the current models for dealing with change were designed for technical change – they assume clear vision, defined boundaries and settled destinations. However, most of the big challenges leaders face aren’t technical, they are adaptive, which is why change leadership is emerging as the critical capability and toolkit for team and project leaders.