Ambiguity Takes A Different Type Of Leader

by Jay Suhr

This is part of a series about how to manage ambiguity for creatives, innovators and problem-solvers. You can find the first three posts here, here and here. In this fourth entry, we look at what it takes to successfully lead teams on ambiguous projects. The answer: intense listening, orchestration and leaving your management bad habits at the door.

I’m a big believer that leadership grows out of candid self-awareness. This is more true when you are tapped to lead something that no one has has done before.

I’ve watched people thrive and struggle when leading vaguely defined projects. Groups of brilliant individuals fail to come together. Iconoclasts give up when they can’t get their own way. War rooms of dreamers spin and swirl and never land, while teams of pragmatists hit every deadline with logical, well-designed solutions, but fall short in insight and inspiration.

Yet through all this, I’ve seen wins in what seems like failure. I’ve observed that the best leaders are those individuals who learn and keep learning.

Ambiguity and War

Ambiguity is frequently grouped under the concept of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity), a framework that originated at the U.S. Army War College in the late 1990s.

Writing in Harvard Business Review, the late Colonel Eric Kail, then an active duty Army officer, offered three very human steps you can take to lead in an ambiguous environment (something he described as “one of the leading causes of conflict within a business unit”). Here they are:

1. Listen well. Give special attention to questions such as “What are we doing?” and “What’s our goal?” Colonel Kail explained that “all voices must be heard,” observing that “subordinate leaders will listen to others only as well as we listen to them.” He cautioned to not just hear what you want to hear from these diverse voices, but listen to their valuable perspectives.

2. Think divergently. Openness to new ideas is a leadership characteristic correlated with effectiveness. “This means seeing past your own ideas,” Kail wrote. “It requires confidence born of competence to care more about a great idea gaining a voice rather than whose voice gets credit. The days of one best solution are gone for good.”

3. Set up incremental dividends. It’s more important for a team to celebrate successes in an ambiguous environment. “When the way ahead is not clear, it is reassuring to have tangible proof that we are moving in the right direction,” he wrote. This proof builds and maintains momentum, confidence and trust in both the leader and the organization.

Orchestration vs. Domination

A unique characteristic of ambiguous projects (the majority of our projects these days) is that teams are made up of people from diverse disciplines (art, copy, content, strategy, UX, connections, technology). Each individual also has his or her own tolerance for ambiguity. For a leader, the challenge is managing the strengths and weaknesses of those disciplines while getting people out of their comfort zones. How is that done? Here are several things you can do to cultivate creative teams:

1. Create a safe place. Culturally, the best thing to do is to create a safe place that is legitimately open to all ideas. (This reflects Eric Kail’s point to “listen well.”) As a leader, you need to draw people out and help them build on each other’s ideas. Recognize the introverts and give them time during a session and at future meetings to share their ideas. Neutralize the devil’s advocates and editors whose “constructive criticism” often shuts other people down.

2. Why? Why? Why? I’ve always found “why” to be the most useful word in developing ideas. It encourages people to express the depth of an idea or to support a point with a new insight or fact. Each “why” and each answer adds clarity or may open a new direction. Phrase “why” with curiosity. You’re not challenging someone’s knowledge; you’re expressing genuine interest.

3. Ideas as Legos. Rarely does an idea come down from the gods fully formed in all its awesomeness. Ideas start rough or ghostly and often spark when a comment triggers a thought and a “What if?” Part of listening well (for you and the team) is being open to new ideas by being in the moment and not rehearsing what you’re about to say. As a leader, your goal is to let ideas build on each other to see exactly what forms.

4. Failure is good. “Some of the most successful people really are those with a high tolerance for failure–the prospect of which often causes paralysis in others,” noted Art Markman in a recent Fast Company article on uncertainty for people “who hate not knowing.” Markman, an author and PhD professor of psychology and marketing at The University of Texas, explained that when the outcome of a situation is uncertain, people should pay attention to signals of nervousness. Those signals mean “you’ve moved past the familiar procedures and the predictable results they yield. In those situations, failure rarely has disastrous consequences. Instead, most failures lead to valuable learning opportunities that make our future efforts more likely to succeed.”

5. Quantity first, polish later. To the chagrin of my creative teams, “What else do you have?” has been my go-to line in reviewing work for years. It’s not indecision, it’s the need to see walls full of ideas before moving ahead. In his Fast Company piece, Markman brought research weight to my point. “One consistent finding from multiple studies of creativity is that the people who have the best ideas are often ones who have the most ideas,” Markman observed. “Quantity, generally speaking, leads to quality. But that also means that the people who have the most ideas also have the most mediocre ideas–you simply need to let yourself generate them so you can sort the good from the so-so and the bad.”

6. Banish dictators. I’ll close by reminding you that the “need for closure” will be a constant nemesis as you lead. “Groups under a high need for closure adopt more dictatorial decision-making styles, favoring autocratic leaders who tend to dominate the discussion,” notes Jamie Holmes in his book Nonsense. Watch this as you lead. Lead differently.

Next up: managing ambiguity starts by clearly defining the problem.

Jay Suhr

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