Managing your business in an every changing world: Managing Ambiguity

The series covers off 4 areas:

• How to accept what’s not in your control and embrace ambiguity
• Develop your resilience and mental toughness for success
• Develop your creative thinking to open your mind to new ideas
• Use scenario planning to imagine what the future could look like

So in this first blog, I take a look at the whole notion of ambiguity and how as business owners we can learn to not only manage what is out of our control but perhaps with some practice, learn to love the ride!

How to Accept What’s Not in Your Control

How many times have you been told not to stress about things that you’re not in control of? When you cannot control what’s happening, challenge yourself to control the way you respond – that is where the power is! Ambiguity and uncertainty have become more prevalent in our lives. As a society, we have been educated and attuned to placing faith in future predictions. From the early tribal soothsayer who would predict the best day for battle to economic forecasters working on fiscal and monetary policies today, but let’s face it we have never really been able to predict what the future might hold. And that is frankly unsettling!

As new variants emerge and lessons from the pandemic are learned, managing ambiguity seems like something all companies will have to continue to work on, which is a good thing. It means accepting ambiguity and uncertainty as well as embracing your imagination, creativity, and courage.

So how can you thrive with little information or conflicting data? More importantly, how do you let go of the factors that are out of your hands? While you might not have as much control as you once did, you can manage how you approach scenarios by employing these techniques to handle ambiguity.


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What is Ambiguity?

“Some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best out of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity.”

  • Gilda Radner

Once you’re aware of what ambiguity is, you can learn how to manage it.

Ambiguity is described in the Oxford English Dictionary as something that can’t be explicitly defined. It might be a phrase or statement or even a scenario. There are multiple interpretations or solutions that are all plausible.

When you’re faced with uncertainty in business, there may be more than one solution to problems you’re facing. Other times it’s when you come to a conclusion about a situation, but before you can act on it, it has already changed, and you’re back to square one.

How to Accept What is Out of Your Control?

There are two models that many business owners utilise to manage ambiguity and uncertainty. The first is VUCA, which stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.

  • Volatility refers to an unexpected or unstable challenge that can last for an unknown duration. It could relate to price fluctuations or supply shortages. One approach might be to stockpile inventory to avoid paying more later or running out of resources.
  • Uncertainty is when there is a lack of information, and it is unknown if changing course is possible. For example, perhaps a competitor product has launched that can alter the direction of the market. In this instance, businesses might invest in information to conduct a thorough analysis and determine the best way forward for their own organisation.
  • Complexity is a situation that has many variables and interconnected parts. It’s prominent in businesses that operate across multiple countries and need to deal with policies, tariffs, and unique regulatory environments. Specialists might get brought in to develop the people required to handle domestic situations.
  • Ambiguity is when no precedents exist, and you are faced with the unknown. It could mean moving to emerging markets or developing products outside the core business. It requires experimenting, knowing the cause and effect, and conducting further testing to validate results.

The VUCA model has been in existence for close to 40 years. However, due to factors such as climate change, technology, and the pandemic, it has spawned the creation of a new framework, BANI, that better describes the world we live in today.

BANI refers to Brittleness, Anxiety, Non-Linearity, and Incomprehensibility. North American anthropologist, Jamais Cascio, evolved and adapted the VUCA model to facilitate fresh perspectives and provide a more accurate representation of the challenges in today’s society.

  • Brittleness refers to anything that may break down unexpectedly despite looking reliable and flexible on the surface. As the world is more interconnected than ever, a critical failure in one country can impact the world as a whole. It requires building resilience to avoid significant disruptions to your operations.
  • Anxiety can make you feel helpless and unable to lead. You end up waiting for the next problem to happen and avoid making decisions in case they turn out to be wrong. The key is to shift mindsets and figure out how to deal with situations in a productive way. You need to ask yourself what you can learn and how you can apply it next time.
  • Non-Linear refers to causes and effects no longer being as assessable as they once were. The most minor decisions can end up having the most significant impacts. It might not be initially clear if it is beneficial or devastating in the beginning. You need to be clear on the context of the situation as well as be ready to adapt quickly when or if the tide turns.
  • Incomprehensible is trying to make sense of the results from a cause, event or decision that has been made. Gathering more data might not help. Sometimes the more information you have, the more overwhelmed you get from analysing it. It requires developing a new type of intuition that also involves constantly learning and evolving as the world continues to change.

Whichever model you choose to follow, dealing with ambiguity in business will be a critical factor for success moving forward. The owners who can thrive with little information and embrace ambiguity will be the ones who emerge stronger than ever.


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Take Action to Manage Ambiguity

If you only have the capacity to take one step towards managing ambiguity, then it should be to stay curious. Jeff Hoffman, the former CEO of Priceline, embraced his curiosity by info-sponging.

All you need to do is block out thirty minutes in your calendar every week and browse the internet for videos, podcasts, and articles from as many people and industries as you can. Upon your search, you will find new tips, tricks, and approaches that could spark an idea or two.

If you want to upgrade your mindset and create some new habits to help you better deal with uncertainty, start with these:

  • Take time to stop and pay attention – be alert, observe, absorb, and scan your environment
  • Stay in touch with friends, colleagues and LinkedIn connections to gain insight into other opinions, trends and interests
  • Be patient but don’t procrastinate – innovation and development happen at the edges so learn what this is, what it looks like and how it feels
  • Be honest about the situation you’re facing and what you can and cannot do
  • Practice creative thinking
  • View life as a continuous learning experience
  • Test, test, test


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It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

It’s no secret that the world has become more complex. Learning to manage ambiguity and uncertainty doesn’t happen overnight. It starts by understanding the challenges you may face in your business without being 100% certain what might happen next.

Scenario planning is an excellent exercise to help develop an adaptive mindset. It can also help highlight that nothing is predictable and there is more than one solution to a problem.

But once you start accepting ambiguity and uncertainty, you’ll also begin to embrace your imagination, creativity, and courage, which will provide many benefits to your business and may even help you to perhaps confront some brutal facts in your business and be ok with this.

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