Performing in Conditions of Uncertainty and Ambiguity: Remain or Leave? Austerity or Investment? New or Old? Expand or Consolidate?

When there are arguments on both sides, the problem facing us often does not have a simple yes/no solution. In reality, there can be many factors that don’t line up neatly behind one view or another. The factors themselves interrelate and are not operating in isolation. We can weigh up the overall balance, but sometimes the scenario feels even more complex than that.

The information we are using to base our decisions on is changing as fast as we can capture it. So perhaps it is a false hope to expect all problems to be neatly defined, options trotted out and evaluated, solutions selected and implemented, all via a step by step planning process that embraced by a more traditional way of working.

Over 30 years ago Rittel & Webber (1973) found that the problems of social policy
resisted a scientific problem solving approach. They argued that the very nature of social problems meant they could not be solved in the same way as what they called “tame” situations i.e. situations that relied on fixed data, and a readily available comprehensive set of solutions from which to choose.

Instead they found that social policy problems, like poverty, homelessness, clean water were ‘wicked’, not in the sense of evil, but as in a puzzle or mathematical problem, that is highly resistant to resolution. Wicked problems are:

  • too difficult to clearly define,
  • complex, with multiple causes, interdependencies and internal conflicts, so interconnections can cause unforeseen consequences when problems are addressed.
  • have no clear single right, or even wrong, answer,
  • unstable, like trying to hit a moving target,
  • always unique.

In a complex world of multiple interrelated factors there was little scope for the use of professional planning tools like ‘goal setting’. Even piloting a potential solution was considered a waste of time because while whilst the impact was being reflected on, the issue itself continued to change. Looking around to what had worked before was futile because each problem differed in significant ways. People would report that meetings seemed to take one step forwards and half a step back. Just as they got a grip of the problem, another stakeholder would present their perspective, and the pieces of the puzzle would fall apart again. Sounds familiar?

More recently, extensive use has been made of the term VUCA - a term first used by the US military to describe conditions of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. The term is now used to describe modern business environments, reflecting the difficulty of framing a scenario in straightforward terms that might lend itself to a tried and tested solution, or at least approach. It can seem too complex to nail down, and down right ‘wicked’.

Weathering the conditions of what Rittel and Webber described as ‘wicked’ problems or a VUCA world is challenging enough, so how are our leaders going to excel and enable high performance in others. There is a lot more written around describing the difficulties than offering a way through.

Top tips from Rittel & Webber, and subsequent writers:

  • aiming for successful interventions to mitigate negative consequences rather than seek a definitive solution,
  • collaborating with as many stakeholders as possible,
  • working with a shared view of the scenario,
  • identifying alternative ‘stories’ to tell different perspectives, rather than lists of factors.

This different way of working requires a high degree of collaborative working skill and sense making capacity. Most of all, it also requires a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty.

The best advice seems to be to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable”. We cannot wait to be sure - that clarity will never come. Or at least if it does it will be as a result of trying something out. The beauty of hindsight. It rather looks as though we will have to accept the conditions of uncertainty and ambiguity. The decision making context feels risky, and with that comes the potential for stress and a drop in performance.

So, go with what you do know, work hard at getting a shared and expanded understanding . Accept that the full picture might not appear in time. Be confident that you are making decisions in line with overarching principles - like ethics, your commitment to the customer experience, and doing the ‘right’ thing.

Future problem solving is going to be about working collaboratively, staying open to new information and ideas whilst still committing to action, being prepared to listen to others, and gather new perspectives and then integrating new insights really fast into the work-plan. Only by moving into the problem can resolutions begin to emerge, releasing new information about what is working and what is not.

To develop these skills in a powerful, fun and engaging way, take a look at Braintoffee’s training activities.

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable before your business deals you a ‘wicked’ problem.