Productive Ambiguity

Productive ambiguity

Traditionally, companies and management have been focused at scaling and optimizing businesses by controlling variability, increasing productivity and driving down costs. However, more and more our “liquid” or “fluid” reality and the ambiguity of our operating context is showing that innovation depends on risk taking and “inquiry”; the search for non-pre-identified categories. “Thus, instead of merely responding to questions concerning the external environment, inquiry implies looking for something non-defined, something still unknown”, -what David Stark defines as “the sense of dissonance”

As Eric Ries advocates in his book The Lean Start-up; management need to develop a new set of tools and metrics for ventures set up in an environment of extreme uncertainty. In fact, the future belongs to the companies that learn to operate with productive ambiguity, concerned with embracing uncertainty (researching confusing and ambiguous situations and transforming it into special assets), exploring, testing and incubating. Companies not only focused on scaling and optimizing proven concepts.

The problem we are facing is that companies, organizations and institutions have structures and processes built for an industrial age, where efficiency was the key asset. However, within these structures and mindsets embracing adaptability is terribly difficult. Changing direction is challenging, because they are not familiar with solving ambiguous problems when they don’t know what they don’t know.


When you don’t know what you don’t know

Traditionally, companies and the business community focus on managing uncertainty but not on facing ambiguity. Companies today need to focus on productive ambiguity and “creative frictions” which emerge from the need to change the mindset instead of only looking for well-defined questions. In fact, many successful innovations have been produced by ambiguity; by not looking for a routine answer to an already-known problem. There is a tendency in our society to reduce complex issues down to simple issues with obviously clear solutions. Dev Patnaik, cofounder and CEO of Jump Associate, summarized the difficulty that companies are facing: “Most big organizations are good at solving clear but complicated problems. They’re absolutely horrible at solving ambiguous problems–when you don’t know what you don’t know.”

However, it’s a fact that our society and context is and will be defined by more ambiguity and uncertainty in the future. The new emerging pattern is that there is no pattern. The key insight is that we are in a time of fluidity and ambiguity. The good thing is that the lack of clearly-identified problems to solve leads to relentless reinvention, causing a constant break with familiar situations, routines and comfort zones. Within this scenario, the most effective way to adapt to a fast-changing context is to provide the basis for creative thinking by the maintenance of ambiguity and creative tensions and the development of a new attitude toward ambiguity.


How can you welcome ambiguity?

First by admitting that there are few absolute truths and that for most challenges there are many potential solutions; empowering diversity and different approaches to solving a problem; creating a non-hierarchical organization with diversity of values and knowledge, to rely more on teams; building the basis of a creative problem solving approach (design thinking, empathic design, people centered innovation, etc.) and a distributed intelligence; promoting innovation beyond just products and services, thinking holistically about novel ways to create and capture commercial value from an offering. Finally, it requires a cultural shift of building a mind-set that embraces instability, that tolerates risk and recalibrate business models, and current assumptions.

Companies try to focus on their comfort zone and search for frameworks, processes, tools and benchmarks; they look for certainty and security and they want to replicate successful business models, but often they don’t realize that just because a specific model worked for Google or Apple, it doesn’t mean it is right for their business. What they need is to embrace productive ambiguity, to evolve their mindset and values, creating the system, structure and culture that best allow it to stay competitive, creative and adaptive to the continuous market shifts. A challenge that is not solved by arranging an entertaining workshop or a fancy innovation room with cool sofas and a foosball table as a “quick fix”.

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