On Ambiguity


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In my short tenure in the world of management so far, there’s perhaps one main concept that has been central to my appreciation for the difference between the technical world of IT and the management of said technical world of IT: Ambiguity. It’s a concept I’m very familiar with from long ago in my undergraduate years at BGSU, where it represented an undesirable quality of an argument in critical thinking. Removing ambiguity would clarify your argument and allow others to better understand your reasoning.

In my several years as an IT professional, ambiguity was also something to be avoided or resolved whenever possible. Customer or project requirements with any ambiguity were prime targets for resolution to avoid unintended results for the end product. There’s nothing worse than finishing a project or competing work on a customer’s computer only to find out that your solution to their stated problem wasn’t what they actually wanted. Ambiguity was the last thing you wanted to have around.

But as I moved into my management position at CWRU (and now with Realogy), the role of ambiguity has taken on a very different hue. Rather than being a solvable lack of clarification, ambiguity for me now represents a much larger part of the environment of work with which I am engaged. To be clear, it’s not something I’m encouraging more of or particularly thrilled by its presence. But it is an almost emergent quality of the work I do because of the complexity and nuanced aspects of decision-making forks in the road.

I credit much of my appreciation and realization of the role of ambiguity as an environmental reality to a discussion I had with former CIO of ITS at CWRU (now CEO at OneCommunity) Lev Gonick. I was in my first semester of the part-time MBA program at CWRU, and for a class project we were required to interview three individuals in positions we would like to be in some day ourselves. Aspiring toward a management position in the IT world at the time, Lev was an ideal candidate to interview.

In my discussion with Lev, he talked about the fundamental importance of being able to effectively deal with the reality of ambiguity. It was an unusual statement to me at the time, and I had never really considered the importance of ambiguity as a sort of ‘hazard of the job’ in management. Lev referenced the importance in relation to his position as CIO at CWRU (and higher-ed in general), but I have found the concept to be similarly applicable to management outside of higher-ed (it may be a universal constant from what I can tell!)

It was early in my MBA program, and a few years away from my first management position. So I didn’t think much of it at the time. But when I was promoted to Manager of Desktop Support in ITS at CWRU, I really began to come face-to-face with the myriad ambiguities of management. Some of it was of course due to me being new to the position, and some of it was undoubtedly higher-ed specific (as Lev had mentioned). But a large part of the ambiguity seemed to stem from the subjective and political considerations inherent to a management position (that were relatively foreign to me previously).

How do you decide what to do in certain situations? How do you align the goals of your own team with those of the department or larger organization? Where is the balance between operational excellence and innovative development? How can one effectively juggle one’s responsibilities to customers, direct reports, peer managers, and senior leadership? There’s a vast amount of detail involved with ferreting out the answers to those types of big, complex, nuanced questions – to the extent that there even is just one answer to each – and the effort involved with finding those well-considered answers often far exceeds the allowable time to spend on those endeavors. You have to learn to effectively deal with the reality of ambiguity.

This is not, of course, to say that a completely relativistic reasoning strategy is the way to go – avoiding any careful thought by claiming there can be no concrete answer to be gained by further introspection. Managers and leaders (a useful distinction worth a separate discussion by itself) would ultimately perform terribly if they absolved themselves of rational decision-making in deference to pure ambiguity and vagueness. But by wrestling with those ambiguities, one can achieve a useful and practical direction for action. It is a challenge – and cognitive dissonance certainly plays a pivotal role in balancing the demands for clear decision-making abilities with the recognition of the contingency and flexibility of the rationale for those decisions.

Why we make the decisions we do in management (I speak as though I’m the voice for all managers – ha!) is not a clear-cut path. Those who claim to have a black & white approach are quite possibly ignorant of the nuanced impact of their decisions or consciously intolerant of the ambiguity inherent to most if not all management activity. I’m sure it would not be hard to cherry-pick examples of “decisive leaders” who lack any compunction for pushing aside reasonable debate and considerations of alternatives. But what perhaps elevates the most effective managers above the rest is their ability to wrestle with ambiguity, and know that it is an omnipresent reality of their job.

I’m a neophyte when it comes to management (relatively speaking), so the process of effectively dealing with ambiguity is still very much a work in progress for me. But thanks to Lev’s important piece of wisdom, I at least have the awareness of the role of ambiguity in effective management.

And as the aphorism goes, “knowing is half the battle.”

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