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“The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning.

Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.” 

Erich Fromm

Embracing uncertainty and ambiguity is not often seen as a worthy skill, especially when you’re engaged in important decision making. Our culture demands certitude of direction and clear evidence-based steps that guarantee success. Shouldn’t ambiguity be banished as quickly as possible? According to Fromm, if you want to unfold your powers, then perhaps other expertise is needed. The capacity to open wide to ambiguity and begin to dance with uncertainty is a necessary and amazing asset for high-level decision making and problem solving.


Ambiguity Has Gotten a Bad Name For Itself

The very words uncertainty and ambiguity conger up multiple negative meanings and experiences like vagueness, obscurity, doubtfulness and lack of clarity. These hardly seem the stuff of successful leadership. How can tolerating ambiguity be an asset? To understand that, one has to first be willing to slow down. A rush to judgement or quick action will not serve you here. Clear headed creative decision making actually starts with ambiguity. Oddly enough, it is essential that you find it before you proceed because even the most seemingly straight forward decisions will be enhanced by seeking ambiguity. Why? Because when we seek ambiguity it causes us to dig deeper with our shovel of curiosity. The surface facts may seem compelling but for major decisions, we need to expose some roots and overturn the soil. What we find there may be of great interest and use, perhaps even treasure. So dig in with curiosity for the facts and keep an eye out for multiple possibilities.


What’s Really True?

 Next, let’s evaluate the time factor. How true is your deadline for decision making on this problem? Is it really yesterday or do you just want to be done with it and make it go away?  Dan and Chip Heath in their 2013 book, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, cited research that 70% of Fortune 500 companies don’t make decisions any better than most adolescents. Both groups have too narrow a focus, often contemplate only one option and then quickly vote it up or down. Having declared their single-option decision, these CEO’s and teens, then spend the bulk of their time convincing others of its worth and trying to make their option work, usually to poor results.

Taking the time to find even 2-3 additional alternatives significantly boosts your percentage rates for success. Holding and tolerating the space of uncertainty while other options emerge will force more data and ideas to come forward and a broader frame of reference to consider the problem more fully. Having additional alternatives seems too simple to miss. However, the fact that it is so often absent in major decision making should tell you volumes about our aversion to uncertainty. Ambiguity tolerance is truly a success skill to cultivate.

We never truly know what’s going to happen. This sitting at the edge of the unknown can be uncomfortable and simultaneously exciting.

Fears and Facts

 Another dynamic factor concerning ambiguity is that we never truly know what’s going to happen. This sitting at the edge of the unknown can be uncomfortable and simultaneously exciting. Again, beware the salesman of certitude in the early stages of decision making. His confidence, assurances and easy convictions may seem to soothe your fears. However, this ploy is often just a slicker version of the single option solution we discussed earlier. To help work through some of the ambiguities it is necessary to separate facts from fears. Listing both facts and fears for each solution alternative can help you reality test more accurately. We may not always like the facts, but at least we can work with them. Fears are always negative predictions about the future that hasn’t arrived yet. Don’t mistake a fear masquerading as a fact. Facts force us to sit firmly in the present moment. Fears pull us away from clear decision making.


Run Clinical Trials

With as many facts in hand as possible for each option it’s now time to run some tests. Whether through simulations or direct testing this is the place to finally try out your different scenarios.  New information always emerges. Perhaps it confirms your biases or blows them away. Either way you need to proceed slowly. The temptation to ignore new data because it is inconvenient or disproves your beliefs is strong. But, confirmation bias can be even more seductive. Keep testing and analyzing all the options. One of the hallmarks of ambiguity is the experience of holding multiple and sometimes conflicting truths simultaneously. You might find out like Scott Cook, co-founder and CEO of Intuit, that some of the best decisions are made when they are based on what he calls “leadership by experimentation” rather than power, coercion and flashy presentations.  So remember to get multiple eyes on your clinical trial data.


The Argument for Intuition

Now, you have your results and it feels like time to make that decision, right? Not so fast: before you commit to your solution, it’s time to do a gut check. This may feel like a poor time to re-introduce a bit of ambiguity, but the results can be fascinating. Close your eyes and take a few moments to calm your body and slow your thoughts. When you’re ready, focus on your first option for solving your problem. Notice how your body responds to this option. Do you become calmer inside or do you sense greater internal tension or chaos? Slowly, one by one, try this gut check with each option. Ask others to do the same body-focused exploration. If you find too much tension, fear or confusion around your options, go back and re-evaluate them. Often times, slower is faster, both in the short and long run. If there appears to be consistent calm around one or more option, factor this information into the overall data. The role of intuition experienced through a gut check like this is an important additional piece of information to consider within the total solution.


Right or Wrong…Decide

 Finally, the moment for decision has arrived. Given all that you have considered, analyzed, experimented with, intuited, and conferred on, it’s time to put your decision into play. And you still could be wrong. Ambiguity strikes again. It has been said that there are no bad decisions. However, every decision we make has consequences. Now that we’ve made our decision, we will have to wait and see what consequences emerge. Rare are the plans that unfold exactly as we’ve anticipated. Maintaining our flexibility and capacity to respond to the unexpected remains. Even as we sign off on a project’s implementation, we know that re-evaluating its progress is right around the corner.


Befriending Ambiguity

Ambiguity weaves its way through the entire decision making process. It is there not to thwart our decisions but to strengthen them. Holding uncertainty and bending it towards curiosity is a powerful tool for assisting us in finding clearer options. Ambiguity helps us hold a focus of “both/and” rather than the limiting “either/or” view. You can be a better decision maker than most Fortune 500 CEO’s and 15 year olds you know if you continue to embrace ambiguity. Keep opening up to ambiguity and you’ll be surprised at all the gifts that arrive.


Next Time in Fire and Flow:  Ambiguity Plunge (A Flow Activation Exercise)








Molly Guzzino

Author Molly Guzzino

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  • Susan says:

    So, so helpful as I sit in the edge of the unknown in my life right now. xoxo
    Susan W