How To Deal With Ambiguity

Moving forward when you don’t know the way


Occasionally we are blessed with having every bit of required information at our fingertips in order to make a sound decision. Most of the time, however, that information simply isn’t there.

Managing ambiguity is a critical skill for leaders

As a leader you will regularly find yourself in a position where you need to move your team forward and make a decision without having all the facts. The first few times you find yourself in this position it can be quite scary, but it’s an important skill to master if you want to make timely decisions, take measured risks, and seize opportunities.

Avoiding decision paralysis

It’s understandable to want to freeze when faced with making a decision in circumstances where you have more questions than answers. How can you possibly make the right decision? What happens if you’re missing something critical? What if you get called out for making the wrong choice?

Waiting for complete information is not always an option, so the key thing to do is to be courageous and make an informed decision using what info you do have. It’s often a calculated risk, but if you don’t move now you could end up missing an opportunity or critical deadline.

If you have questions, by all means try to get them answered but don’t risk spending too long on this, and avoid allowing those unanswered questions to block you. Missing information should never be an excuse for not moving forward.

Support your team

When faced with a decision where I’m missing facts, I will occasionally test one of my team members by asking for their opinion. I find some people are naturally good at handling ambiguity and enjoy this challenge, while others – often the more logical, methodical thinkers – get spooked and go into shutdown.

When working with a team it’s very important to be sensitive about how individuals may feel when faced with ambiguity. Let them know you understand, and be sure to acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers either.

Sometimes ambiguity can be a result of low self-confidence. Letting someone know that you value their judgement and opinion can be enough to help them speak up and suggest a way forward.

Effectively communicate your decision

Once you’ve made a decision, ensure you communicate it clearly and effectively, and that everyone knows what they need to do in order to support it. There may be ambiguity surrounding the decision but once made there should be no ambiguity about what has actually been decided.

Provide as much detail as is possible, and get people to play back what you expect them to do. If necessary, check in separately with those team members who are less confident, to ensure everyone is equally aligned.

Don’t be afraid to change course

Unless reversing a decision or changing direction will have serious impacts, you shouldn’t be afraid to pivot if you got it wrong. Sometimes a new piece of information will come to light that totally changes things, warranting a new decision.

Take responsibility and openly admit if your decision was the wrong one, but make sure your team understand exactly why you need to adjust course, what the new decision is, and what is now expected of them.

Photo by Thanos Pal on Unsplash

Elevator Pitch for IT Professionals

“What do you do?”


It’s the question many IT professionals dread, but sooner or later you know someone is going to ask what you do for a living.

There’s nothing wrong with our career choice, but it’s usually pretty tricky to explain what we do in a non-technical way.

How many times have you replied by saying you work in IT? I’m guessing it’s the exact same number of times you’ve watched the conversation die right there, unless of course you’re speaking to another IT worker.

Thankfully, there is a better way to get across your line of work without the other person’s eyes glazing over.

Spark curiosity

When someone asks what you do, you don’t have to answer with a job title. The trick is to provide a tempting little slice of information that’s vague enough to stimulate curiosity and get the other person wanting to know more.

For example, instead of saying you work in IT, you could say, “I help businesses improve their customer experience.”

That might provoke a question such as, “Oh okay, what does that entail? Are you a consultant of some kind?”

Don’t just say Yes (or No)!

Instead of replying in the affirmative/negative then giving your job title, ask another question to get the person talking.

Continuing the above example, you could ask, “Well, as a customer yourself, you know how buying something can be a really frustrating experience?”

At that point the conversation could come to life as the other person responds with something like, “Tell me about it! The other day I was trying to buy a new TV online and whenever I tried to checkout it kept rejecting my credit card. I know the card was fine because I’d just used it to fill up my car.”

Ask more questions

“So what happened? Did you manage to get it through?”

“No, I was so frustrated I abandoned it and tried another site. I had to pay £5 more on the delivery charge but the payment went straight through with no problems. My new TV was delivered this morning and I love it. I’m planning a Netflix binge this weekend.”

You now have an opportunity to steer the conversation a little more and explain what you do for a living with a real-world example.

You don’t just work in IT

Okay, it may not go as smoothly as I’ve illustrated here, but you can see how describing your job from a business or end-user perspective can be a much better conversation starter than, “I’m a DevOps Technical Lead” or “I’m a Postgres DBA”.

With a little practice, this technique can be highly effective.

Of course, if you know the other person is in IT, to avoid annoying them you’re probably better off just coming out and saying “I’m an enterprise architect” or “I’m a Node.js developer”.

Give it a try!


Photo by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash

BA (Honours) in Leadership and Management


It’s been a long time since I updated this blog, as I have been busy with lots of other things besides Open University study. However, I wanted to share some news with the thousands of people who have visited and/or continue to visit this blog for information and/or inspiration.

After six years of study I finally got my degree. If I can do it, with all the other things I had going on in my life during that time, then believe me … anyone can do it. I truly mean that. It’s my graduation ceremony this weekend, marking the successful conclusion of my OU journey. (At least for now!)

What next for this blog? Well, I’m considering adding to it on a more regular basis and making it about much more than just academic study. If you look at my About page, you will see this was something I always intended to do. Let’s see if I can finally make that happen!

Good luck with your studies!

The difference between leadership and management

I’ve just read an excellent article first published in Harvard Business Review by John P. Kotter, entitled ‘What Leaders Really Do’.

I used to struggle with the difference between leadership and management and didn’t fully understand how they were different, but after reading this article (chapter 3 in the B204 reader, ‘Discovering Leadership’) I do. For me this is quite a profound piece of learning.

In a nutshell, leadership isn’t a mystical quality. It has nothing to do with charisma or leadership traits. It isn’t better than management or a replacement for it. Both are distinct and complementary, and depend on each other for success.

Not everyone can be good at both leadership and management. Some are stronger leaders and some are stronger managers. Both kinds of people are valuable, but perhaps more valuable are those people who can both manage and lead. Understanding the difference is a key first step to this.

The difference between management and leadership

To quote Kotter, management is about coping with complexity, and good management brings a degree of order and consistency. Leadership is about coping with change, and more change always demands more leadership.

Companies manage complexity by planning and budgeting, setting targets, establishing detailed steps to achieve them, and allocating resources. Conversely, leading an organisation towards change involves first setting a direction or vision of the future, along with strategies for achieving that vision.

Managers develop the capacity to achieve plans by organising and staffing. They find qualified individuals, communicate the plan to them, delegate responsibility, and devise systems to monitor progress. Leaders align people by communicating the new direction to others who understand and are committed to achieving it and can help create the necessary coalitions.

Managers ensure plans are accomplished by controlling and problem solving using reports, meetings and other tools, identifying issues, and re-planning and re-organising to resolve them. Leadership involves motivating and inspiring, keeping people moving in the right direction despite major obstacles by appealing to basic human needs, values and emotions.

On reflection, this all sounds really obvious. Everything does with hindsight!

Tolstoy’s Wave

In whatever direction a ship moves the flow of waves it cuts will always be noticeable ahead of it … When the ship moves in one direction there is one and the same wave ahead of it, when it turns frequently the wave ahead of it also turns frequently. But wherever it may turn there always will be the wave anticipating its movement. Whatever happens it appears that just that event was foreseen and decreed. Wherever the ship may go, the rush of water which neither directs nor increases its movement foams ahead of it, and at a distance seems not merely to move of itself but to govern the ship’s movement also.

Tolstoy’s bow-wave metaphor for leadership provokes some interesting questions. Are leaders merely figureheads, propelled by events beyond their control even though it appears the events are controlled by them?

Leaders are in front of those they lead, but are they pulling or are they being pushed? Can you be a leader without followers? Do followers make leaders by being followers? Are leaders and followers just part of a virtuous/vicious circle feedback-loop? Must there be a leader before there are followers? Do organisations need leaders in order to be successful, or are we just used to the idea of having them?

– Grint (1997), cited in Billsberry (2009).