The Ambiguity Business

As I sit here, rapidly nearing my 50th birthday, I look back at the companies and government agencies I’ve worked for and the companies I’ve managed or owned and operated.

I find that work is heaven and work is hell. It’s uplifting and it’s stressful. It’s rewarding and it can certainly be defeating.

Companies are made up of people. We are companies because we are in the company of others. We have colleagues, associates, and friends. We work with these people, each of whom has their own life outside the walls of the office.

Things rarely go as planned. This is a design flaw in the human brain. We are not very good planners.

But when we do make plans, we put a lot of our hopes into them. The funny things about hopes is that every hope is a solution to a fear. So we also put our fears into them.

When plans begin to go awry, we react emotionally to the collapse of the plan.

I often use this analogy:

Suppose I told you to get in your car and drive down a very long, straight tree lined highway at 100 miles and hour. The car is already on the roadway. It’s pointed in the right direction. The wheels are perfectly straight. I tell you the car is all set. You get in and I’ve removed the steering wheel. I’ve already set the course, all you have to do is hit the gas pedal. You likely wouldn’t want to do that.

This is because there is variation in all automobiles. You know that you’ll have to make little, nearly imperceptible, corrections to the car. The wheels simply won’t stay pointed in precisely that direction.

Steering is part of the system of driving. Constantly making small corrections and, from time to time, making large corrections, is all part of safe driving.

But it’s never been part of safe project management.

There a lot of variation in business and even more ambiguity. We feel that these things are dangerous to predictability, so we try to legislate them away. We create deadlines and budgets and plans … all of which are setting the car in motion with a really great map and no steering wheel.

We have an inherent discomfort with not knowing what’s going to happen ahead of time. That discomfort can manifest itself as healthy excitement and anticipation, or it can become fear and loathing. But, like it or not, businesses that try to ignore that ambiguity and variation are not just forces in business - but primary forces in business - will continue to more slowly and be outpaced by those that prepare for the unplannable.

Further, we need to understand that companies are again made up of people. When plans go astray, we react as people - not as machines. We are disappointed, upset, and even angry. We tend to look for people to blame, rather than acknowledging that variation and ambiguity may be at work.

We are in the ambiguity and discomfort business.