If you are like most people, ambiguity is extremely uncomfortable and is something to be avoided whenever possible. Most of us find the lack of definition and lack of boundaries associated with ambiguity a little scary so we attempt to get definitions and boundaries set as quickly as possible. This reduces our personal stress level but it may not result in an optimal solution or situation.
For other people, ambiguity is something that can be manipulated to avoid facing reality or to float through their career without accountability or deliverables. This sort of behavior is obviously unproductive and should be avoided.
For a third group of people, ambiguity is used as a productivity tool. They use ambiguity to help them consider all aspects, perspectives and components of an issue without being tied to any one viewpoint. They are able to objectively evaluate disparate positions or solutions without bias and select the best solution possible.
Marty Neumeier, in rule 8 from his book The 46 Rules of Genius: An Innovator’s Guide to Creativity (Voices That Matter), calls this latter process of dealing with ambiguity the Dragon Pit. A dragon pit is the “gap between what is and what could be.” He says it is a “space filled with discomfort, darkness and doubt” and that most people look for a way out of the dragon pit to stay in the “what is” state rather than stay and fight the dragons guarding “what could be” state. He goes on to say that “A genius is someone who can tolerate the discomfort of uncertainty while generating as many ideas as possible.” It is clear that the dragon pit of ambiguity is not a fun place to be but it is also clear that the longer we are able to tolerate ambiguity, the more great ideas we will generate.
Neumeier goes on to say that staying in the dragon pit as long as we can is similar to keeping our ideas in a “liquid state” as long as possible. In this liquid, ambiguous state, we must let our thoughts, ideas, experiences and knowledge “mix” with each other to form new ideas and concepts, different and better than all of the current state ideas and concepts. We can make this an even more powerful process if we can bring others into this dragon pit with us and leverage their thoughts, ideas, experience and knowledge.
Ambiguity should not be avoided, ignored, stamped out or bounded too quickly. Challenge yourself to spend some time in the dragon pit, leverage ambiguity as a productivity tool and keep your ideas in a liquid state, combining them with the ideas, concepts, experiences and knowledge of your team and staff.
What tough situations are you currently trying to define or solve? What ideas, concepts, knowledge and experience could be combined to find a solution? What exists that can be built on? What would have to be created to make the new idea or concept viable? What are the advantages of the new ideas that the current state does not have?
For more thoughts on this topic, check out a past post that I wrote regarding certainty, What Everybody Ought to Know About Certainty And How It Can Hurt You. Here I wrote about the importance of remaining open minded and curious, open to new ideas as opposed to being close minded or absolutely certain about a particular issue. It also synchs nicely with the ideas of being a divergent thinker and connector of ideas in How To Be A Connector of Unconnected Ideas.
“The leader has to be able to imagine different organizational combinations in his mind and see how they will play out. He has to be able to move people around in his mind and grasp how they would respond to new situations. He has to be able to move resources and budgets around and be able to discern how those moves would affect the bottom line. He needs to be able to look at complex human situations and sense how the outcome would be affected depending on the sequence in which he interacts with various participants.” Steven B. Sample