A MILLION Shades of Grey – Get comfortable with ambiguity, or get out of business

Last week I wrote that there are no “right” answers – that, because most issues are complex, multi-faceted and dynamic, the dialectic of “right vs. wrong” is inappropriate. You have to make decisions based on better vs. worse instead. If this is true, then it suggests that we better be comfortable with ambiguity. Because everything has lots of shades of grey (my apologies to those who thought this article was going to be about a different “Shades of Grey”).

There are lots of reasons for the ambiguity surrounding seemingly everything these days. We’re living in a time of unprecedented uncertainty. Macro-economic conditions are pressurized and in constant threat of up-ending our economy (in fact, some economists are calling this post-recessionary period “The Great Ambiguity”). The political dynamics of our time have never been more polarized. Business is in constant evolution/revolution, with long-standing companies and categories being fundamentally turned upside down and new, billion dollar businesses being invented daily. Nearly everything that used to be held as a given seems now to be under question and changing hourly.

But all is not lost. Good leaders can get comfortable with ambiguity, and even use it to drive better ideas, work and success. Understanding that you can never have all the answers is the first step. Recognizing that things change, no matter how well you set your strategy and plan, also is important. And knowing that life is messy and that you can’t avoid a bumpy ride will help.

But what can you do when faced with those shades of grey? How can you avoid being paralyzed by the lack of a “right” answer?

Bring clarity to the problem. In almost all situations, there is no one answer, no silver-bullet solution. But you will help yourself immeasurably by spending time clearly identifying and understanding the problem. As I’ve written before, defining the problem you are solving goes a long way towards solving

So spend as much time and focus as you can on understanding. Know as much about the underlying factors, the root causes, the business below the business. Keep digging, until the amount of knowledge-return is less than the effort of digging. Then start solving.

Don’t fear failure. And don’t fear fear, either. Fear is one of the great de-stabilizers. And it’s a key factor that causes people to be uncomfortable with ambiguity. When you aren’t sure what the “right” thing to do is, you become concerned you will do the “wrong” thing – and fail. Instead, do your best to embrace the possibility of failure. And remember that you can never have it all figured out.

Because you can only fail by trying to do something. Just remember to learn from your mistakes, make incremental improvements, and formulate a plan for next time.

Measure and learn. Another thing you’ll need to do in order to deal with ambiguity is have a maniacal demand to measure and learn from your actions. Since you can’t be sure whether your in-going assumptions are “right”, you need to ensure you have put in place the right analytics to help you find out. And be prepared to act on whatever you learn. Because measuring without response is a waste of time.

Trust yourself and your team. As hard as it may seem at the moment, you need to have self confidence and trust in your colleagues to deal with all that lack of surety. With the proper belief in yourself and team, you can be confident you’ll be able to figure it out as you go along. In the words of Ray Bradbury, “you’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.” Having confidence in your ability to build those wings before you hit bottom will be very helpful.

Use the tension to produce ideas. The uncertainty and ambiguity you feel can cause tension. Rather than letting that tension cause paralysis and dissension, instead enable the tension to lead to ideas and innovation. Solicit input from others, especially those outside your immediate group. Brainstorm and bounce thoughts off each other. Take some logic and lateral leaps. And don’t expect the “right” answer to emerge from this ideation. Just look for something good and productive. And start building.

Do you think you can deal with ambiguity? How do you do it?


  1. Michael, I agree with your ideas on ambiguity and the lack of a ‘right’ answer. I think it’s more important to take action, any action, and start figuring out ‘a’ solution. A manager of mine once touted he was very good at making decisions with 80% of the information. That was his goal, to get 80%. I’d argue that might even be seeking too much. Sometimes we have to make decisions based on 50% of the information, because that might be all the client or prospect is willing to give us, or even has. Having an ability to work through the ambiguity and find a solution is key, and understanding there’s likely a number of solutions available will help drive action versus paralyzing us until we know exactly what the ‘right’ solution is.

    1. Great point, Scott (funny, I was going to write a post about making decisions with incomplete information… now I know I HAVE to!). We actually never have all the information needed – and if we did, it wouldn’t even need a decision to be made.
      Thanks for stopping by.

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