Embracing ambiguity

In my first year in my first job (way back in 1996…) my mentor advised me to “embrace ambiguity”. I was struggling because the details of the project I was working weren’t clear and it was affecting my work. I wanted certainty so I could deliver on my corner of the project better. That’s understandable, and very human, but also impractical. At the time it seemed to me that the project lead could spend a few moments sorting a few things out and make my life and everyone else’s run more smoothly. What I didn’t realise was that if he could have he would have, but it wasn’t that simple. There were things that our client hadn’t yet made up their mind on for reasons that were outside his control.

I understood then that in many situations it is better to accept that important things are unknown, that nothing can be done about that, and proceed accordingly. Sometimes that means making best guesses and being ready to change tack if things turn out differently than expected. Other times it means waiting or changing the order of the plan.

This advice made such a difference to me that I still think back on it all these years later, sometimes to help myself and sometimes to help others, particularly in the startup world where so much is uncertain. It makes most people uncomfortable when something important is uncertain, but sometimes living with that discomfort is the best way forward.

There is another type of ambiguity which I’ve been thinking about lately, and that is ambiguity deliberately created to secure an advantage or allowed to continue through laziness. This second type of ambiguity is poisonous to productivity and should be called out. In a nice way.