According to Korn/Ferry’s For Your Improvement, 90% of the problems and challenges that leaders from the middle level up through executive level face are characterized as “ambiguous”, meaning that it is neither clear what the problem is nor what the solution is.

Also, according to Korn/Ferry and Lominger, the ability to deal well with this type of ambiguity is one of the Big 8 Leadership Competencies that are associated with the highest performing leaders across all organization levels.  It is directly related to the ability to create the new and different or to innovate.  And how important do global leaders feel it is to be able to lead teams who innovate? In PwC’s most recent Pulse Survey of global CEO’s, 97% of CEO’s see innovation as their top priority because of the necessity to find new sources of revenue as well as to develop better products and services. Innovation is not an option, it is a requirement for building competitive advantage and it starts with the ability to deal well with ambiguity.

And here is some good news:

Dealing well with ambiguity is not a skill highly present in the talent pool.

So what does that mean?

It means that if you want to differentiate yourself as a leader, develop the ability to comfortably make more good decisions than bad with less than all of the information, in less time and with few or no precedents on how it was solved before. In other words, don’t try to predict the future, learn to invent it. 

So, How Skilled Are You In Dealing With Ambiguity And Leading Teams To Invent The Future?

You are pretty good at it if you:

1. Cope well with high levels of change

2. Can shift gears easily

3. Can make decisions without having all of the information

4. Don’t get upset if things are unlear and in flux

5. Are comfortable handling risk (and failure) 

On the other hand, you may need to focus on developing this competence if:

1. You don’t like change and uncertainty

2. Find yourself wanting and asking for more and more data before making decisions

3. Avoid dealing with problems that are unclear

4.  Like to do things the same way you have done them before

5. Avoid risk at all cost 

Here Are 5 Approaches That Can Help You Be A Leader Whom Innovators Will Follow: 

1. Learn to ask the right questions and listen to the answers. It may sound obvious, but before trying to solve a problem, ask the right questions to make sure you know what the real problem is and that you understand what is causing it. This will give you a better chance of asking deeper and better questions and getting the right people involved which will help you come up with the most innovative solutions.

2. Be an incrementalist:  You don’t have to dive into the deep end of the pool immediately. The key to success is remembering that innovating is a creative process. You have to accept that you and your team will be wrong some of the time; just make sure that you are wrong on smaller stuff, not the catastrophic stuff.  Start small so you can recover quickly if you are wrong. This will also give you and your team time to increase your overall ability to tolerate and learn from mistakes made along the way.

3.     Prepare to pivot. Don’t get attached to one right answer. Make a decision, see if it works or doesn’t and why and decide if you need to get more data, course correct or completely change directions. Stay open to responding to what you learn with each step of the process.

4.      Give up the need to be perfect, right and in control. Einstein once said that success looks like failure half way through. This state of mind, of curiosity and exploration, is what will help you proactively sense and respond and invent what needs to come next. You simply can’t get there, or lead others there, if you are expecting to be right and feel comfortable all of the time. Exploration is about moving out of your comfort zone…that is where the good stuff lives!

5.     Become a trapeze artist…meaning, master the ability to know when to hold on and when to let go. Oh, and get comfortable with that hang time in the air. This is about listening to your intuition in addition to your intellect. Learn to lead from the intelligence within your whole body, not just from your head. If you define the problem correctly and you engage in inquiry and non-attached problem solving and you collect good information, you will feel it from the inside out if you are on the right track or if it is time to let go.  Trust that and don’t second guess yourself.

Sheila Madden is the CEO of Madden Coaching & Consulting where she coaches and consults with leaders of high growth companies, individuals wanting to live an extraordinary life and young professionals who are ready to launch their careers with competence, confidence and character. She is certified to use the Korn/Ferry Voices 360 Leadership Architect Assessment, HayGroup Emotional and Social Intelligence Assessment and the Hogan Leadership Assessments.

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