The best leaders know how to keep moving forward in ambiguous situations. Whether it’s a shifting industry or a PR emergency, they’re expected to make decisions even in extremely uncertain circumstances.
Any leader facing high levels of ambiguity needs to do two apparently paradoxical things: First, get comfortable with the idea of not having all the answers, and second, take steps to reduce the uncertainty.
- Get comfortable with the unknown.
Instead of feeling comfortable with the unknown, humans crave information that will make the ambiguous less so. The problem is that seeking more information sometimes feels like forward movement, when in reality, we’re delaying taking action because the information we need doesn’t exist or is so hard to find that we won’t get it in time.
Business leaders must recognize this instinct and overcome it. It takes courage to walk into a situation knowing you won’t be able to judge your decisions until you’ve succeeded or failed. Develop enough self-knowledge to know whether you have a natural tendency to overanalyze or seek perfection. If so, set limits on yourself. Determine that you’ll gather as much information as you can in one week before making a decision, or restrict yourself to consulting no more than four people before acting.
Researchers have studied how people in high-risk professions, such as firefighting, deal with uncertainty, and formed the theory of “organizing ambiguity.” They found that leaders who successfully navigate uncertain situations are able to properly contextualize their circumstances — or in their words, “make effective sense of the hazards within dangerous contexts such that they avoid catastrophic mistakes.” This lets them take action while recognizing that variables are changing and adjustments may be needed if their assumptions prove incorrect. When you face dilemmas calmly using a balance of information and instinct, you make better decisions that fit the changing conditions.
You can also look for how uncertainty works to your advantage in creating a new future, and help people around you see that ambiguity can unlock potential. For example, ambiguity can create discomfort and make us explore options that we may not have considered just months before.
- Reduce uncertainty where you can.
There are rarely “right” answers in business. But making a decision — even if it’s deemed imperfect later — has the benefit of reducing uncertainty for the rest of your company or team.. Is that the right decision or the wrong one? We won’t know for some time — but in the meantime, Target now has a clearer sense of its priorities.
Considering the ways that a current situation deviates from past experiences or patterns is one of several things leaders can do to derail old habits and eliminate subjective decision-making tendencies. Ask what’s different about the circumstances you’re in now, as well as which players have changed or introduced new elements.
Effective leaders also consider multiple perspectives when they’re in uncharted waters, by encouraging collaboration, input, and new ideas. Be inclusive, and rely less on hierarchy and more on relevant experience. Above all, avoid the “I have all the answers” trap. It’s important to know when your expertise helps and when it’s creating a blind spot.
Finally, an incremental approach can reduce uncertainty while avoiding the risks that come with making a big, sweeping decision. Create a series of short-term plans that can evolve as the situation becomes clearer. You’ll likely need a long-term financial plan, but keep your operational plan more fluid, adjusting it with new information. Regularly ask your team, “What have we learned that must change our plans in the next three months?”
“Construct the best possible future” one day at a time. Accept that there will be uncertainties, develop confidence in your own decision-making, and be ready to take the next step.
You can’t wait to have all the information before acting, and you can’t wait for the perfect conditions to set your course. Instead, take the initiative to actively manage uncertainty.
Adapted from an article in Harvard Business review by Patti Johnson.