“The best leaders know how to keep moving forward in ambiguous situations” (Johnson).
If you play board games you may have heard the term ‘analysis-paralysis’. It refers to people who feel compelled to consider every possible scenario. As a board game enthusiast, I find it painful when I play with people who have analysis-paralysis. They cause the game to drag and often focus on things that are of little significance. This concept also spills over into our work lives and we have all spent time with people who suffer this syndrome.
The heart of this problem relates to how we deal with ambiguity. Patti Johnson notes that, “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”.
- Develop comfort with the unknown: Life in the information age means that we have access to more data than we have ever had. Therefore, wise leaders develop a means to wisely respond to a glut of information. Research has dubbed this skill ‘ambiguity organization‘, the ability to contextualize the things which are important and quickly adapt when the results show that you are wrong. Leaders must possess the soft skill of being comfortable enough to act when operating in these grey areas. As access to information continues to increase, I project that people who possess this skill are going to be regarded as gifted leaders in the decades ahead.
- Reduce uncertainty: Conversely, there are things we can do which can help minimize uncertainty. Brian Cornell, the CEO of Target, had to determine what to do with their financially troubled Canadian chain of stores (Johnson). Studies revealed that they would not be profitable until the year 2021. As a result, he made a decision to close all Canadian operations. Did he understand every implication of this huge decision? Not at all! Rather, he used the information he could to reduce the uncertainty and then bravely made a decision.
An individual’s ability to work amidst ambiguity is also affected by their environment. Personality tests sometimes refer to this condition as how we behave under ‘norm’ versus ‘storm’ situations (storm refers to difficult or stressful environments). Some of us demonstrate consistent behavior whether we are in normal or stormy situations. Others use different styles than they do normally. For example, I have discovered that I slow down decisions during times of high stress. I have observed others who do the opposite and make much quicker decisions in storm situations (e.g. – firefighters). To combat this, leaders must first understand their norm versus storm behaviors (as Socrates once said, ‘know thyself’). Then we must develop a plan to help with this imbalance when necessary. As an example, I try to have an inner circle to help me through storm situations and also set timelines by which decisions need to be made.
A reason I enjoy board games is that I can experiment with strategy. I can try new things and the only consequence is losing. However, the stakes are higher when we apply this to our personal or work lives. It is different when you are moving your family across the country, taking a new promotion or risking budget on a new idea. Therefore, effective leaders can paradoxically manage analysis-paralysis by reducing uncertainty and developing comfort with the unknown.
Jeff Suderman is a futurist, professor and consultant who works in the field of organizational development. He works with clients to improve leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational Future-Readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman
Patti Johnson (Mar. 11, 2015). Avoiding decision paralysis in the state of uncertainty. Harvard Business Review On-line.