Ever present in the existential choices of adult life, ambiguity is certainly not new in fast-paced business environments. If the process of removing it has always been partial, as the world abandons the era of converging globalisation and becomes more geopolitical, removing ambiguity can feel more illusional than ever before.
As we scroll the newsfeed in the morning, there’s hardly a single news or statement that can be interpreted in one way. Two very different sets of values, with diverging views on what the role of the individual, the business and government should be, come to play a prominent role at a scale that feels unprecedented, possibly in history and certainly in our lifetime. An inherently different approach to communication does the rest to blur the picture until lunchtime, when – luckily – a sense of clarity on where the world might be headed next might finally be developed. Not always, and the conclusion may very well differ from the previous day and be at odds with the one that will follow.
Entering a market, doubling down on another one and establishing the manufacturing footprint and the supply chain are decisions that can neither be procrastinated nor fully revised at every eureka moment.
Whether as an entrepreneur or intrapreneur, the primary role of a business leader is to allocate capital. Spreading out time, talent and funds more effectively and efficiently than others is what determines for individuals, teams and organisations the privilege of the next bet.
Standing by the crystal ball for too long, letting the organisation enter the passive mode that looming catastrophic scenarios legitimate, or pursuing naïve decoupling initiatives is unlikely to help.
Boiled down, what ambiguity really does is to build an additional element of risk in every course of action.
Structuring for mere observation of economic and political systems in order to gauge their long- and short-term development is no longer an option. It requires both individuals and organisations to establish and maintain a reliable and credible network to assess cross-industry developments and geopolitical effects without biases or preconceived notions.
Allocating time for individuals and teams to engage in open dialogue within and outside the organisation is crucial to strengthening their ability to identify patterns, consider cause-and-effect relationships, and evaluate the potential impact of different scenarios.
In different words, for both individuals and organisations, getting it right in such an environment largely depends on the ability to figure out what might be coming next and prepare to cope – and possibly thrive – on it. Such an ability can hardly develop in individual or organisational isolation.
On the upside, ambiguity broadens the spectrum of scenarios that have to be factored in while assessing every course of action, and if such variety is conveyed well, it can become excellent fuel for innovation.
Whether it’s the development of a new business model or the introduction of a new product, the process of de-risking it to withstand ambiguity might well enhance its returns, particularly should the future unfold towards the best-case scenario.
As we head back from Dublin, our module abroad on Innovation and Change management, the concept of proximal development sticks. Originally defined in educational psychology as the gap between what a child can achieve independently versus what he or she can achieve with the support of an adult (Vygotsky, 1978), it has expanded into business to frame the zone between what an individual can achieve independently and in collaboration with more capable peers.
Letting go of improbable magic recipes, holding tight to long-term vision, and focusing energy on proximal development in partnership with more capable peers is what can help business leaders navigate – and possibly thrive – in a present business environment.
I’m truly grateful my EMBA experience so far has proven an outstanding platform for that.