Flourishing in ambiguity

We have a new essay published by Deloitte Insights, Flourishing in ambiguity,1Evans-Greenwood, Peter, and Katherine Wannan. 2023. “Flourishing in Ambiguity.” Deloitte Insights Magazine, January 31. https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/topics/strategy/leading-through-uncertainty-strategic-decisions.html. a collaboration between C4tE and the Deloitte Human Capital team. In a somewhat oblique way this builds on Strategy and the art of the possible2Evans-Greenwood, Peter, and Giselle Hodgson. 2022. “Strategy and the Art of the Possible.” Deloitte Insights, July 6. https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/topics/strategy/business-ecosystem-strategy.html. by teasing out the idea that you need to act to decide in a complex and rapidly evolving environment rather than decide to act, as is our usual predilection.

Act to decide vs decide to act is something we mentioned in Strategy and the art of the possible. It’s a phrase we first saw in an academic conversation about the extended mind.3We were unable to find a reference to that conversation, which was on Twitter, but the original extended mind article is a good starting point to explore the associated ideas. Clarke, Andy, and David Chalmers. 1998. “The Extended Mind.” Anaylsis 58 (1): 7–19. https://era.ed.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/1842/1312/TheExtendedMind.pdf. This research started by asking: where does the mind end and the outside world begin. That answer is that it’s complicated, as we tend to think by interacting with the world around us, rather than inside our heads as we assume. Humans think not in our heads, but by interacting with the world we find ourselves in. A baseball player, for example,4Wilson, Andrew D., and Sabrina Golonka. 2011. “Prospective Control I: The Outfielder Problem.” Notes from Two Scientific Psychologistshttp://psychsciencenotes.blogspot.com/2011/10/prospective-control-i-outfielder.html. does look at the ball, estimate its trajectory, and then run to where the ball is going. Instead, they move to improve the opportunities available to catch the ball—running in the same direction as the ball, preparing to dodge left or right around second base. Eventually one of the opportunities becomes so compelling that they commit and act. If we consider “predict where the ball will land and run to it” to be ‘decide to act’, then “move to improve the available opportunities” is ‘act to decide’.

We saw the difference between these two approaches early in the global pandemic. Some firms couldn’t decide on the best response and so, by default, they trimmed costs and hunkered down. Other firms unsure what to do did many things, experimented with new products and challenges, find smarter ways to use existing resources, and grew rather than shrank.

Our natural predilection when confronted with uncertainty is to show leadership by confidently committing to a single course of action. We feel that we’re at a fork in the road, and that we need to pick to one direction or the other. To commit to a path we need to be able to predict where it will take us, but the complex and rapidly evolving environment we’re in today means that these predictions are often impossible. The future is hidden behind decisions and interactions that we cannot see, unknown unknowns. The best option available to us might not even be visible from where we currently stand.

Leading in this uncertain times requires a different predilection. Rather than decide to act, we need to act to decide—explore the opportunities available to us, work to improve them, and then commit the firm to a new course of action when one of the opportunities becomes so compelling that its the obvious thing to do.

The difficulty that many executives have in acting to decide is managing their tolerance for ambiguity. Ambiguous and uncertain situations can be considered a source of threats to be dealt with by creating a veneer of certainty because leaders believe they’re expected to be decisive.

The solution is to change one’s predilection for uncertainty: to foster attitudes and behaviours that enable one to effectively engage with and manage the many uncertainties and unknowns (and unknown unknowns) that are inherent in our current environment, rather than to ignore or hide from them. Comfort with ambiguity can come from the confidence that one knows how to productively engage with it. And productively engaging with ambiguity often requires balancing our bias for committing to a single course of action with a bias for learning and exploration—taking smaller actions to determine the best way forward.

You can find Flourishing in ambiguity on the Deloitte Insights site.