Ambiguity Case Study


According to studies, 90% of the problems of middle managers and above are tied to the ambiguity around issues when its neither clear what the problem is nor what the solution should be. The higher you go in an organization the more ambiguous things get. The individual in this case was recently promoted to a General Manager and came from a highly process oriented and highly defined job. He was not experienced or  comfortable with fuzzy problems with no clear solution or expected outcomes.  The more ambiguous the situation the less effective and productive the person became. Change and uncertainty became the enemy.

Impact if Unresolved

An organization with too many people who are not comfortable with ambiguity can result in leaders who may:

  • Move to conclusions without enough data
  • Fill in gaps by adding things that aren’t there
  • Frustrate others by not getting specific enough
  • Undervalue orderly problem solving
  • Reject precedent and history
  • Err toward the new and risky at the expense of proven solutions
  • Over-complicate things
  • Lack innovation

Options For Improvement

  • Challenging the fear of criticism and risk taking.
  • Learning to fight off perfectionism and trusting your intuition.
  • Learning to become more of a pioneer and accepting less control over situations. For example volunteering for a Habitat for Humanity project where roofing is something you’ve never done.
  • Improved problem definitions by learning to ask more questions.
  • Visualize the problem with tools like storyboarding, fishbone diagrams, flow- charting or utilizing project- planning software.
  • Stress management techniques.
  • “Letting go” tools


The essence of dealing comfortably with uncertainty is the tolerance of errors and mistakes, and absorbing the possible heat and criticism that follow. Acting on an ill- defined problem with no precedents to follow means shooting in the dark with as informed decision as you can make at the time. People who are good at this are incrementalists. They make a series of smaller decisions, get instant feedback, correct the course, get a little more data, move forward a little more, until the bigger problem is under control. A coach can help a candidate practice starting small with ambiguous situations, getting quick feedback, and recovering more quickly from mistakes and getting used to taking the heat on little things rather than the risks associated with big grand solutions that might fail.

The Chinese have an interesting problem solving technique call the “10 whys” and this is very helpful for people who struggle with defining problems. Keep asking the 10 whys something is the way it is until it is more obvious what the root causes are and how to proceed with a solution. There are similar TQM techniques. This can be practiced in a coaching setting in order to make the process more productive and natural in meeting situations.

People are not their best when they are anxious, frustrated, upset or lose their cool. Ambiguity and uncertainty can often bring on these issues. A coach can help identify what may bring out these emotional responses and help prevent or gain control of these so that uncertainty can be easier to manage.

Coaching Anecdote

Brad is an engineer by training in a large-scale utility. He worked for a decade in the distribution side of the business, which required lots of precision, rules and policies. This was a mostly black and white world where perfection is highly valued.  When he was promoted to a GM role he became the leader of 60 people working in an energy marketing function. Suddenly problems and issues were very “gray” and the ambiguity eventually started to erode his performance. His function became know as the group that never gets things done and his reputation was beginning to get tarnished.

He formed lots of teams to tackle issues that weren’t well defined  and these teams met for months without much progress. Coaching helped Brad to create better charters and missions for the teams, set up regular course correction activities with peers and teams, helping him to deal with the stress of not having all the answers. He also brought into the organization an innovation process that they could all learn and deploy creating a steady pipeline of new ideas. Many visualization techniques helped the function with “fuzzy area” implementation activities. By year two in the GM role others areas of the company were utilizing some of the tools and techniques that Brad had created with his coach. His function became a “place of choice” when employees were seeking transfers.