Leading the Dynamic between Ambiguity and Agility

Sections of this topic

    In 1999 I facilitated scenario building for eleven cross-functional pharmaceutical teams (R&D, clinical development, global marketing, regional operations, manufacturing, and regulatory). The future was 2020 and we were imagining the marketplace, what consumers would expect, how diseases would be treated, and the features and benefits of the gold standard therapies of the day. Imagining the future for most people is difficult, it is just too Ambiguous, and each team struggled to conceptually get out of their own way.

    Ambiguity is a powerful learning environment. As the teams’ worked to create their shared interpretation of a nebulous future, they were forced to construct meaning that was relevant to all the functions within the room. In doing this, transformation occurred and they no longer saw themselves as isolated functions, the future as unknowable, or their actions reduced to a single path upon which they stumbled blindly forward. Contained within their diverse perspectives, wide range of expertise, and varied contributions to the product development and commercialization process, Agility waited.

    Ambiguity Agility

    Ambiguity allows us to interpret the VUCA mess, finding meaning and just enough structure in our immediate situation so that we can act. Agility centers us and reminds us that reality is socially constructed, ours to interpret and create. In the VUCA world, the Ambiguity ∞ Agility dynamic is central to strategy and planning. If we don’t like our options, we need more diversity to generate Ambiguity. Reducing Ambiguity focuses meaning so that we act with intention. Agility ensures resilient, adaptable action by constantly adding just enough Ambiguity to the mix. And so the cycle goes, a dynamic that companies like Ideo and Jump have perfected.

    The Ambiguity ∞ Agility dynamic also impacts consumer goods. For those of you my age, remember the “van” of the 60s? That was a product category that had so little Ambiguity that a van was only meaningful if you were a hippie, rock band, or had a trade business. The concept of “minivan”, however, had enough Ambiguity to be meaningful to lots of people. The auto industry Agilely exploited that meaning, flooding the car market with products. This was repeated when trucks, a vehicle with low Ambiguity, was integrated with car, a high Ambiguity product, and the SUV emerged. Other industries also use the Ambiguity ∞ Agility dynamic; walk down the cereal aisle in any grocery store for a glimpse of all the “meaningful” alternatives to oatmeal and Cheerios. In fact, market research uses this dynamic to create a bit of VUCA in the daily lives of consumers.

    Memories of the Future: Introducing Ambiguity into Business

    Back to the business of scenario building, when someone in the group says, “We can’t possibly know the future,” remind them of NASA’s commitment to put a man on the moon in ten years when they didn’t have fuel for a rocket, a spacecraft, computers small enough or powerful enough to perform the mission, or space suits that would protect the non-existent astronauts (just to name a few obvious things they didn’t have). Or watch Apollo 13, and notice how Ambiguity allowed for new meaning to emerge from a pile of junk and saved the lives of three people on their journey home. What “pile of junk” ideas are starring you in the face that can be re-meaninged and turned into gold? What Ambiguity ∞ Agility alchemy are you missing right now?

    We are often trapped by our past experiences and continuously relive our Scenarios of the Past. For this reason, it helps to think about creating Memories of the Future, a term taken from neurobiology. Our brains capture thoughts and imaginings as memories, even before they occur. Using scenarios to create Memories of the Future introduces Ambiguity into our interpretation of events as we perceive them. When you have imagined four different futures and are presented with a situation today, your ability to be Agile in the face of controversy is dramatically increased.

    Lessons for Leaders

    • When you encounter Ambiguity, whether it is a product category or another’s opinion, look for diversity of meaning. When multiple interpretations of the situation are held in creative tension, Agility naturally emerges.
    • Don’t rush to structure reality before you have fully explored the terrain. The Ambiguity ∞ Agility dynamic is foundational to innovation, creativity, and design.
    • Scenario building, simulations, and imagining the future are not frivolous business games; they are powerful means of engaging the collective mind and using whole brain logic. Ignore these at your peril in the VUCA world.

    Dr. Carol Mase


    Carol challenges leaders and their organizations to think differently about the world and how they can achieve their fullest potential in it. Her unique background unites business and biology, psychology and physics, bringing them into creative tension and generating tools and applications for all levels of the organization – from the C-Suite to the manufacturing floor. Carol has worked as an entrepreneur and an executive in Fortune 500 companies, always introducing fresh ideas that produce innovation and change, locally and organization-wide. She holds a degree in Psychology/Education, a Masters in Human Ecology/Interpersonal Relations, and a Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine.