In most organizations there is a certain dose of ambiguity: accountabilities not completely clear, some overlapping of responsibilities, dynamic tensions between groups in charge of the same area but working from different angles etc. In the extreme, this is chaos. But pure chaos will lead to no survival. I am not talking about the extremes or the dead. I am talking about reasonably successful, or, indeed, very successful organizations which host some degree, or a lot of ambiguity.
To some people, even a modest degree of ambiguity will be stressful. These people need a lot of clarity, lots of permissions, a clear roadmap. Other people navigate well in some ambiguity. Some people simply thrive on ambiguity. The issue is what kind of people you have on the payroll. People with low tolerance to ambiguity cannot survive in organizations with high ambiguity.
Accepting that some degree of ambiguity is inevitable, the question is how much and what to do with it. The how much is completely cultural. There is no good answer about what is acceptable or not. I use the Yerkes-Dodson law in Psychology as a parallel. This very old law (1908) states that certain degree of anxiety is good for motivation and, actually, increases performance. But, there is threshold. Beyond an optimum level of ‘anxiety-performance’, anxiety suddenly becomes a blocker, and performance goes down sharply. In other words, there is ‘good anxiety’ and a ‘bad anxiety’. Anxiety is not always bad.
A typical example is the exam situation. No anxiety at all, means no real motivation. Some anxiety is good, and increases our performance in preparing for the exam, and this increases focus in the exam itself. People are more alert and motivated. Beyond a threshold, an optimum ‘anxiety-motivation-alertness-performance’, a marginal increase in anxiety blocks performance completely: the mind goes blank, and even facts that one knows very well, simply don’t come.
Similarly, in the organization, there is ‘good ambiguity’ and a ‘bad ambiguity’. A certain dose is good: it keeps some possibilities open, relies on relationships for things that cannot easily be sorted out by processes and systems, it banks on more than one brain dealing with something etc. Beyond an optimum, the negative consequences of ambiguity are very visible and overall effectiveness falls sharply. In that scenario, people spend a lot of time ‘trying to put some order’ in work.
There are various ways to deal with this, but, in caricature, it comes down to two. One is, ‘kill ambiguity’: try to fix everything, clarify any uncertainty, tidy any loose ends, close any gap, fix any fuzzy accountability. The other is, ‘navigate it’: learn to deal with it, make it work, accept that life is not perfect, make the most of an environment that is not rigid, does not have all the answers, and provides lots of room for people to go outside their natural ‘box jobs.’
It boils down to a question of trade-offs. How much ambiguity can we accept on the ‘good ambiguity’ side and how much I am prepared to trade off for complete clarity but perhaps compromise my room to manoeuvre.
‘Navigating ambiguity’ not killing it, is a good core competence of the modern organization.