Loving Ambiguity

When she was in college, Peggy found out something about herself that would influence her career direction.  Faculty would often give assignments that were very vague and ambiguous.  She often wondered if this was deliberate or just carelessness.  Whatever the case, she looked upon these assignments as an opportunity rather than a challenge.

What Peggy would do is to think of novel ways to respond to the assignment.  She would give her own interpretation to the assignment and then create a response to that interpretation.  This gave her the opportunity to do something distinctive that set her apart from other students.  When others were whining about the assignment, she provided a work product that went beyond her professors’ expectations.

When Peggy started her career, she was again confronted with vague and ambiguous assignments.  Most of the time, those giving her the assignments weren’t sure what they wanted or even what the problem was (i.e. “Something isn’t right.  Could you find out the problem and fix it?”).

Again, Peggy would use the assignments to showcase her abilities.  Often, she would use an analytical approach she had learned in responding to the assignment.  Since her boss was often not aware of the analysis tool she used, she had an opportunity to show how new approaches could be used in problem solving.

These vague assignments also gave her the opportunity to expand the scope of her work.  In effect, she was able to create her own assignments as an expansion of what she was originally asked to do.

As Peggy was promoted, she looked for job candidates who also thrived with ambiguous situations.  Her areas of the organization quickly become known for their innovativeness.  In fact, she rarely even gave out assignments because her staff would create their own assignments.

Think about how we approach ambiguity.  We strive to define problems so precisely that we often get solutions to the wrong problem.  Unfortunately, there aren’t many Peggys coming out of college because our focus is on right answers to carefully designed problem statements.  What we should be doing is preparing students to identify the dimensions of ambiguous situations and then developing approaches for handling these many dimensions.  In reality, there are few well defined problems in any job.  Nor are there right answers.

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“I fear explanations explanatory of things explained.” – Abraham Lincoln

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