Navigating ambiguity is just one skill among many

Many jobs, especially professional jobs, have some rubric in which you are required to be comfortable with ambiguity, skilled in ambiguity, thrive in ambiguity, maybe enjoy it or love it. It makes sense. There’s a lot of unanswered questions out there, it’s not surprising that some jobs want you to answer some of them.

But there’s risk in holding this up as the standard of succeess, the single skill to grow in. I have been trapped, and seen others trapped, in very unhappy situations, either saying to ourselves “this situation is ambiguous, why aren’t I thriving?” or worse, having others say to them “this situation is ambiguous, why aren’t you thriving?”

Not all ambiguous situations are alike, and your expectation that you can navigate ambiguity, or even your experience of successfully doing it in the past, does not mean that you should either seek out or stay in ambiguous situations.

The key thing about navigating ambiguity: it is a useful skill, it is not the only useful skill. A situation being unusually ambiguous, or being more ambiguous than other places you could be, does not mean that it is the right place for you, a place where you need to force yourself to be in order to be the best you can be, or progress in your career, or make the most difference.

After all, what skills are you giving up or not using while you’re spending all this time navigating ambiguity?

Is there a reason for the ambiguity?

There’s an extreme version of wanting people to thrive in ambiguity that amounts to loving ambiguity itself, and creating it where it isn’t needed. Ambiguity can be necessary and good – the single worst mistake of my career was forcing a decision from a set of alternatives when the bad alternatives were a clue that I needed to spend more time exploring – but it’s stressful. Successfully navigating necessary ambiguity is different from “it’s all ambiguity all the time”.

Is resolving this type of ambiguity a skill you have?

Ambiguity can vary widely. Is this a defensible case or should I plead guilty? Is this skill one I should turn into an income or develop as a hobby or volunteer to teach to others? Is the wind going to move before the fire reaches here? Which of the two warring factions should I have tea with?

Your background, interests, training, support system equip you to navigate some types of ambiguity and not others. I can arrange a workable response team structure to an infrastructure software outage pretty quickly. I can design a passable fundraising strategy for your small not-for-profit and I have a bunch of general skills I can put to use in many situations.

But I am not remotely the right person to turn to in a humanitarian disaster to perform either medical or resourcing triage. I also have no experience navigating the changes in children’s fashion to figure out what your line should be 12 months from now. The mere fact that there’s ambiguity there and I have at times succeeded in navigating ambiguity does not make me an effective person in those situations. If you want to be able to navigate ambiguity better, play to your strengths in choosing what ambiguity that is.

Is resolving this type of ambiguity a skill you want to have?

Maybe you’re in a situation a little closer to your experience than children’s fashion futures are to mine, but still you’re not quite at home in this level of ambiguity. There’s more hurt, more money, more people involved that you’re used to.

Since ambiguity is a useful skill, perhaps this is a situation to stick around in, but you’ll want to have support. Do you have access to training, advice, mentoring? What’s the situation for you if you fail, or do a less than perfect job? Is there a way out if you decide it’s beyond you?

If not, again, you have a decision between whether navigating this type of ambiguity, with this level of difficulty, and this amount of risk, is the skill you want to be developing right now, compared to all the other things you could be doing.

Is this ambiguity one you have the power to resolve?

This is the big one. Regardless of how skilled you are in the domain, or how subtle your ability to draw out the opinions of others, if the structures around you don’t let you be part of resolving the ambiguity you’re going to have a very rough time.

For example, if you are in the midst of a humanitarian disaster, and you don’t have a network of local contacts, transport, communications, and, potentially, defence, there is likely a pretty low limit on what you can achieve even if you have coordinated other disaster responses.

A version software companies often run into is expecting new or junior or solo staff to be able to resolve major problems with the product or its infrastructure without access to hierarchical power (ie an inattentive, disempowered, or non-existent management chain) or a structure of intermediaries to work with. Being able to find and navigate the undocumented and hidden decision-making channels in these situations is a very useful skill but it’s not an easy one. Dragging something great out of this situation may not be a great use of your time and skills.

Navigate right on out of there?

There’s plenty of times that navigating ambiguity isn’t the right match for you, right now. Go ahead and navigate ambiguity by navigating yourself right out the door and into a situation with less ambiguity, different ambiguity, better help with ambiguity, or a focus on a skill that isn’t navigating ambiguity.

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