According to the Webster's College Dictionary, ambiguity is "doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention." In a business sense, it's lack of clarity. How many times have we, as managers, assigned projects or tasks without 100% clarity? Often!
While some Gen Y's may love the freedom and open-endedness of the ambiguous assignment, most of the students and client employees I see today become paralyzed by it. Gen Y's are amazing at going from 1 to 2 to 3 to 4 on several projects concurrently. But they're not generally as strong at going from 0 to 1 in starting a task with little process or guidance.
For the most part, Gen Y's don't like ambiguity for three reasons. First, parents and teachers have been providing razor sharp clarity through their upbringing. Much of the background "0 to 1" work has already been done for them when Gen Y's start a new task. So they have little experience with floundering a bit. Second when they do flounder, helicopter parents and (often overly helpful) teachers step in quickly to resolve the lack of clarity, rather than encouraging or forcing the child to struggle through the ambiguity and think for him/herself. Third, in the minds of Gen Y, floundering wastes time and doesn't get things crossed off the list. Gen Y's are all about efficiency and time management. Time in which nothing gets "done" and projects don't move forward is extremely frustrating for this busy, ever multi-tasking group.
So today's Gen Y's early in their careers are hit by a double whammy. By temperament, their approach to efficiency and making every minute count doesn't leave room to appreciate the tangled assignment mess that requires quiet analysis and critical thinking. Besides, whenever they were "stuck" someone has always swooped in to help them before they "wasted too much time."
Now they enter today's fast paced, lean organizations where there is even more ambiguity than in years past. This may be especially true in smaller businesses that haven't created a lot of process and business models. Managers don't just manage, but have their own projects. The pace of business is accelerated and more work is expected to be accomplished, often before true objectives and boundaries have become clearly defined. For a manager to think through every nuance of a project assignment isn't always feasible. It just takes too long. Providing that level of background work can also reduce the creativity and critical thinking experience that great managers want their young talent to gain.
Then, the push back comes. Because Gen Y's are accustomed to having the adults in their lives provide background and clarity, the moment they get stuck, they resent the manager who make them work it out for themselves. You may then hear (or overhear) "I waste so much time because my boss won't explain what s/he wants." "My boss doesn't care about my productivity" "As soon as the economy improves, I'm going to look for a new job with a manager who is more supportive."
You may find yourself wondering, aren't Gen Y's the ones who have such a strong innovative and entrepreneurial spirit? So why don't they embrace these types of open-ended assignments in the work place? Well, consider that there's a difference between creating something of your own vision and creating something on behalf of someone else. Working within other's expectations can create higher levels of ambiguity.
So, as a manager, what do you do?
Some projects are assigned with great clarity, "Here's the problem we're experiencing. Here's the outcome I'm looking for. Do this, this and this to solve it. Go!"
But other assignments are simply "Go solve this." No steps, just "Go!" As a manager, you often don't have time to think through steps, and you want to give your young talent the opportunity to be creative and figure it out for themselves. You know that they need that experience to learn and grow. You also know they'll take great satisfaction from resolving the ambiguity themselves and from surviving the struggle. You may need to be the "bad guy" for not just giving them the answer. But, you also know that giving them the time to flounder is often the best gift you can provide to help your young talent grow into strong, well rounded business professionals.
So, instead of resolving the ambiguity for your Gen Y employees, give them a model for how to resolve it themselves. Remind them that resolving ambiguity is an important skill in their professional development. You may need to guide and support their first time through. But they'll be doing the critical thinking on their own.
Resolving Ambiguity – A 7-Step Process
Step 1 – Why are you doing this project?
When you start working on a project that is unclear, you need to figure out the difference between what you do know and what you don't. Even though everything about the assignment may seem blurry, take a moment and you'll realize that you know more than you think you do.
The first thing you need to be ABSOLUTELY sure of is the objective. You can't make good choices about a project if you don't truly understand its purpose. Even if your manager hasn't thought through the project's steps, s/he must know what problem is being solved or what opportunity is being leveraged. You must know what your efforts are intended to accomplish. If you do, great. If you don't, STOP. Request another conversation with your manager. You're not asking what you should do, you're clarifying the project or assignment's purpose. Try some of the following questions to get that conversation going:
- What do you want this project to achieve?
- What problem are we solving?
- What will be different after this project is accomplished?
- Describe the perfect world after this project has been successfully completed.
Listen carefully, not just to the words, but also to the underlying wishes. While your manager is talking you may be tempted to start thinking about solutions. Fight that temptation. Now is the time to be sure you're clear on the project's purpose and desired outcomes. Deciding how to move forward will happen soon enough.
Step 2 - Find the Lines
Once you're sure you understand the project's objective, create a list of the "givens" and then a list of the things you're not sure of. Every project will have boundaries and the sooner you lock those in, the sooner the project will feel less ambiguous.
Do you know the:
- - budget
- - deadline
- - staff who are available to work on the project with you
- - audience for your effort, etc.
Then carefully think through the assumptions you are making. List them. Try to come up with at least 10 assumptions to be sure you are seeing all your preconceived ideas. It's likely that there are assumptions you're making without even realizing it. To help you, complete sentences such as the following:
- - We absolutely must ____________________________
- - We absolutely cannot ___________________________
- - ___________________________________ is off limits
- - "Joe" refuses to work with "Sam"
Once you work through this process, the project will start to become less ambiguous and daunting. You'll now understand the desired outcome and some of the project boundaries and givens. Don't get frustrated that you haven't "done" anything yet. You may not realize it, but you have.
Step 3 – Look around
Very few projects in an organization are completely new, where nothing like this has ever been done before. Check around. See if you can find earlier, successful projects that share common characteristics with the one you're currently working on.
Find the project owner and ask questions such as:
- - How did you approach this?
- - What were some of the smart things you did?
- - If you had it to do over, what would have done differently?
- - What are some of the hidden project pitfalls?
- - What are some of the hidden organizational pitfalls?
- - Who else should I talk to?
Step 4 – Create a vision and define a conceptual plan
By now you know your project's purpose, have some boundaries, have detailed your assumptions, and have broadened your experience set by talking to others. You still may not know exactly what you have to do or how to do it, but it's time to put a stake in the ground. You need to create your vision for the project. As you do this, you may find that there are multiple ways to approach your project. Narrow your list to no more than three approaches.
Putting together a presentation will help you lock in your thinking. Create the following sections / slides as a starting point. You will also want to add other sections that are relevant to your specific project.
- - Objective
- - Boundaries
- - Assumptions (Note that not all the assumptions on your list should be discussed publicly.)
- - Strategy / Approach
- - Strengths & Weaknesses Analysis (of your single or multiple proposed approaches)
- - Expected Results
A "strawman" proposal is purposefully intended to generate discussion and directional input, rather than seeking approval or disapproval. This is the perfect framing for your discussion, since your plan will not be completely fleshed out and this is simply concept clarification.
This conversation could be formal or informal depending upon the scope and complexity of your project. If you and your manager determine that there are other stakeholders who should participate in this conversation, you may want to recruit a colleague to take detailed notes. That way you can completely focus on the conversation.
Be sure to pre-plan discussion questions through your presentation. For example:
- - Objective – Is this accurate?
- - Boundaries – Are these accurate? What boundaries am I missing?
- - Assumptions – Are these good assumptions? Are there other facets I should be considering?
- - Strategy / Approach with strengths and weaknesses assessment – Do you think this will be
- - (If multiple approaches, present all. Which approach do you recommend and why?)
- - Expected Results – Is this sufficient? Is this feasible?
Keep in mind that running this type of session is also great experience and exposure!
Step 6 – Redefine
Now that you've gotten feedback, the ambiguity should be melting from the project. Clarify your project's purpose, select a strategy, and define the tactics necessary to complete your project. Confirm with you manager and key stakeholders that you're on the right track.
Step 7 – Go!
But remember, with projects that start with a great deal of ambiguity, things may shift mid-stream. Provide frequent status updates to key stakeholders to be sure you're still on track and that things haven't changed in the outer world, while you're focused on your project's inner world. You're not necessarily asking for feedback with each update. You're just keeping stakeholders aware of the path you're on in case there's information that should be shared with you.
Successfully completing your first project that simply had "Go!" as its marching orders, will give you the confidence that you can work effectively through ambiguity. You may never fully embrace ambiguity, but you will know you can tolerate it and be successful within that environment.