Shades of Grey (no, not the movie) – How to Cultivate Your Relationship With Ambiguity

Urban legend has it that in the mid 1960s, former FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover was reading a typed copy of a letter he’d just dictated to his aide. He didn’t like the way the letter had been formatted so he wrote on the bottom, “watch the borders” and asked the aide to retype the letter. The missive was then sent off to all the top agents. For the next two weeks FBI agents were put on special alert along the Canadian and Mexican borders. (Word has it, Hoover was a bit of a bully and that his staff were too scared to challenge him, but that’s a story for another day).

This story highlights the challenges of ambiguity – it’s confusing and it can cause all manner of communication problems. Ambiguity is irritating, it’s confounding; but in certain situations ambiguity leads to creativity, and that’s often where the diamonds get mined.

Ambiguity is not always bad.

In fact, when creative problem-solving is required, ambiguity can be a powerful stimulant to your imagination. Especially in the germinal phase of the creative process, a little ambiguity can be just the ticket. It can force your brain to ask questions like:

  • What’s going on?
  • What does this mean?
  • How else can this be interpreted?
  • How can I work with this constraint?

Most of us have learned to avoid ambiguity because of the communication complications it causes. Creating contracts, writing documentation, and giving directions are all situations in which we should avoid ambiguity. In an emergency a pilot doesn’t want to be ambiguous in her instructions – that’d lead to some pretty disastrous results!

But in situations requiring innovative approaches, too much specificity can stifle imagination. What’s more, it’s pretty clear that leaders are increasingly facing the “new normal” of constant change. Your ability to handle paradox and complexity, sudden shifts in markets and competitive disruption can be the difference between success and failure in leadership.

We need to cultivate a new relationship with uncertainty.

Tolerance of ambiguity is an important element in creativity and open-mindedness. Finding ambiguity is an important part of thinking something different.

Here are 5 ways you can cultivate a healthy relationship with ambiguity:

  1. Look at things in the everyday world around you and think – what else might it be? Picasso saw bicycle bars as bull’s horns. Children are great at using this ambiguity muscle – that fork and spoon – chimes. That brick – a spaceship. The more you develop this muscle in everyday situations, the more you start to use it in your professional life.
  2. Cultivate your own sources of personal ambiguity. These can be people, books and things – anything that forces you to look for more than one meaning in order to understand what’s going on. Apply multiple frameworks to make sense of what’s in front of you – don’t just rely on your usual lens or path dependence for making sense. Ask, “How can I reverse my viewpoint?”
  3. Give your team chances to work with ambiguity in a new geographical market to crack, a completely new business model to develop. How else can you get them to think creatively about how they’ll access resources to solve the challenge at hand?
  4. Practice making decisions without all of the hard data. Then be open to course correction once you have decided. Seek the second right answer. Perfectionism and “the one right answer” are enemies of creative problem solving. Say, “yes, that’s a great answer – what’s another great answer that would also work?”
  5. Encourage everyone to envision a wide range of responses and outcomes rather than quickly narrowing the scope of discussion. Steer people (and yourself) away from black-or-white thinking that so often leads to poor decisions. Challenge assumptions. This is especially important during periods of heightened fear or when emotions are running high.

Author of the book Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, Jamie Holmes, said, “If there’s any takeaway, it’s that we’re programmed to get rid of ambiguity, and yet if we engage with it we can make better decisions, we can be more creative, and we can even be a little more empathetic.”

What’s your relationship with ambiguity? How can you become more comfortable with it?

What benefits can you identify that come from embracing ambiguity?


1 Comment

  1. Norman Chorn on March 3, 2017 at 2:49 pm

    Nice article Suzi. I can use these arguments when discussing scenario thinking – an approach that suggests we all face alternative futures. Thanks

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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