How To Really Navigate Ambiguity

When I hear organizations describe ambiguity and how they seem to seek the virtue of managing ambiguity over reducing ambiguity, I often picture in my mind a small raft floating in a vast sea. Stranded in a foreign environment with little hope of rescue or self-direction, tossed about by the waves of corporate indulgence and subjected to elements of market dynamics.


Indeed, some organization have created a culture of ambiguity and praise those who seem to navigate it well. Ambiguity in this context is viewed as an immoveable mountain to climb rather an artificial construct to be reduced, mitigated and eliminated.

No one truly wants to live in ambiguity nor is there a pure ambiguous corporate environment. What really happens when ambiguity hits is that we rely upon that which is known and seek for the familiar and for congruency. This is core to how we learn. When we learn anything you always seek to reference, to elaborate and compare new information within a construct we already know.

Point of fact: Nobody thrives in ambiguity.

The organizational goal should be to reduce ambiguity and not just deal with it or live with it. Ambiguity should not be the ideal state or status quo. The reason it persists is because people don’t know how to reduce chaos and thus reduce ambiguity.

On June 16th 2014 Wael Zaki in an article on LinkedIn said:

It is true that there are many ambiguous situations that a manager needs to deal with, and especially true that new ambiguities will constantly arise. However, treating ambiguity as a steady state, and getting used to making decisions in this state is not a desirable situation. Here’s why:

a) It misses opportunities to obtain less ambiguous data

b) You effectively train your team not to get you information

c) Your decisions are always suspect.

d) This translates into encouraging more ambiguous situations beyond decision-making

The real question is not how to deal with ambiguity, but how to reduce and combat chaos.

Nothing is more ambiguous than a change of direction within a company or organization. Despite the executive’s desire, intent and PowerPoint skills, clarity is often absorbed by misunderstanding at best and chaos at worse. This happen because the executives concentrate on the reasons for change rather than explicating their decision making process, which is most often not transparent to the organization.

How to make decisions more transparent?

A simple model called “the dip” by Seth Godin provides insight into corporate pivots, changes and program augmentation. If every employee understood the dip and the criteria for failure then they might understand the decision process of executives and thus seek learning, failure and accelerate their work.

The thesis of the Dip is:

Winners quit fast, quit often, and quit without guilt—until they commit to beating the right Dip.

Every new project (or job, or hobby, or company) starts out fun…then gets really hard, and not much fun at all. You might be in a Dip—a temporary setback that will get better if you keep pushing. But maybe it’s really a Cul-de-Sac—a total dead end. What really sets superstars apart is the ability to tell the two apart.


Winners seek out the Dip. They realize that the bigger the barrier, the bigger the reward for getting past it.

Winner also know when to quit. Being thoughtful and strategic about quitting can be one of the most important things you do as your work toward your overall objective.

This critical to understand that dip that will occur and work is needed when we and corporations set Big, Hairy, Audacious, Goals (BHAG)

The term ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goal’ was proposed by James Collins and Jerry Porras in their 1994 book entitled Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies.

This is why Lean Methodology works. It inherently understands the dip and as you build measure and learn you adjust tactics toward your BHAG from what you learn.


Success and failure criteria then become paramount in going through the dip. Quitting at the begging of the dip is better than toward the end. Quitting thoughtfully and strategically saves time, effort and increases profit for companies.

Beware of Things that Seem like Dips

Dips deter people from becoming experts. But, people spend time — our most limited resource — focusing on the wrong activities. Godin addresses these by introducing two other curves. The Cul-de-Sac and The Cliff.

The Cul-de-Sac — French for dead end — represents an activity that no matter how hard you work, you aren’t getting anywhere. The Cul-de-Sac is boring, the Cliff is exciting (for a while), but neither gets you through the Dip and both lead to failure.”

The Cul-De-Sac: no matter how hard you work, you don’t get results.


The Cliff has no dip. The more you work, the better you get. But, at the end, there is a fall off. Activities which look like cliffs don’t deter people. Since there is no challenge, everyone can become and expert. Thus diminishing the value of the activity.


The Cliff: The more you work, the better you get. But, at the end, there is a fall off.

Abandon the non-dips

Abandon activities that look like Cul-de-Sac or Cliff curves. Anything worth doing has a dip. The other two curves represent markets and activities that aren’t worth focusing on.

There are times when you want to abandon activities that have dips too. Godin suggests identifying all activities, you’re working on, that have dips. Then ask: What will happen if you continue with these activities? Will you become an expert? Are you willing to slog through the difficulty of the dip? If not, drop it.

Getting through the dip is hard. Only people who want to be the best, lean into the dip and get through it. At the end of the book, Godin gives some questions to ask yourself.

• Is this a Dip, a Cliff, or a Cul-de-Sac?

• If it’s a Cul-de-Sac, how can I change it into a Dip?

• Is my persistence going to pay off in the long run?

• When should I quit? I need to decide now, not when I’m in the middle of it, and not when part of me is begging to quit.

• If I quit this task, will it increase my ability to get through the Dip on something more important?

• If I’m going to quit anyway, is there something dramatic I can do instead that might change the game?

Because we can’t predict the future we have to enter our endeavors with knowing that a dip will occur.

Misperception occurs because we confuse the purpose and intent of BHAG verses the tenuous nature of tactics and strategies toward the BHAG.


While it is doubtful that any organization would change the purpose and intent of their company or BHAG on a quarterly basis, they should and do change tactics, sometimes quarterly based upon a myriad of factors in order to get through the dip toward their BHAG.

It is what you are learning from crossing the dip that gives executives less ambiguous information about how to adjust tactic toward the BHAG. Learning and changing is a good thing. More transparently around when to change based upon real data calms the sea of ambiguity and should be the virtue that all organizations seek.

There is value in creating a learning culture to get you through the dip.


The wisdom of learning from failure is incontrovertible. Yet organizations that do it well are extraordinarily rare.” So said Amy C. Edmondson, a Professor at Harvard Business School. Edmondson continues her brilliant insight and research:

“Most executives I’ve talked to believe that failure is bad (of course!). They also believe that learning from it is pretty straightforward: Ask people to reflect on what they did wrong and exhort them to avoid similar mistakes in the future—or, better yet, assign a team to review and write a report on what happened and then distribute it throughout the organization.

These widely held beliefs are misguided. First, failure is not always bad. In organizational life it is sometimes bad, sometimes inevitable, and sometimes even good. Second, learning from organizational failures is anything but straightforward.”

Edmondson continues “Only leaders can create and reinforce a culture that counteracts the blame game and makes people feel both comfortable with and responsible for surfacing and learning from failures. They should insist that their organizations develop a clear understanding of what happened—not of “who did it”—when things go wrong. This requires consistently reporting failures, small and large; systematically analyzing them; and proactively searching for opportunities to experiment.

In short, exceptional organizations are those that go beyond detecting and analyzing failures and try to generate intelligent ones for the express purpose of learning and innovating. It’s not that managers in these organizations enjoy failure. But they recognize it as a necessary by-product of experimentation. They also realize that they don’t have to do dramatic experiments with large budgets. Often a small pilot, a dry run of a new technique, or a simulation will suffice.” This is how we learn through the dip.

Ambiguity can be organic and artificially created by lack of communication. For executives the message for change should include a recognition that a dip will occur, that metrics and criteria will be used to navigate through the dip and changing tactics to get through a dip is normal and doesn’t threaten the overall intent and BHAG of the organization.


The real question that plagues organization is when to change or quite something that is not working. Being transparent rather than covert with those decisions is what inspires confidence in leadership and helps everyone learn and navigate through ambiguity.


The Learning Maze: A New Framework For Personalized Learning will be published soon. Learn more about it here:

the learning maze cover

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