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Avoid Ambiguity to Improve Performance

Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA) are alive and well in the world of projects. 

These factors magnify the effects of one another to increase the risk of project failure and the need for increased management precision and capability.

Volatility (the frequency of change), uncertainty (the degree to which outcomes are known) and complexity (the number and kinds of relationships) are unavoidable.  They are part of the fabric of every project, to one degree or another.  While they can be moderated, they cannot be eliminated, mainly because they are driven by external factors beyond our control.

This article focuses on ambiguity and what to do to avoid it from making project performance more difficult than it needs to be.  Ambiguity is a quality that we can control.  Ambiguity is inexactness or vagueness; being open to multiple interpretations.  It can be avoided by communicating clearly and precisely.  

Example: ambiguous Target Date

Here is an example of ambiguity and how it effects performance:A policy decision is communicated to a division’s senior management with an effective date of September 1.   The new policy requires changes to back-office application systems, procedures and to customer facing websites and mobile applications. 

Ambiguity came into play because it was unclear as to when full compliance was required. 

The policy decision was made and communicated to division management on August 15, as the division was gearing up for a long-planned initiative that required intensive work by the IT and staff and had a fixed deadline.  The new directive was triggered by a regulatory decision.  The regulators were usually satisfied with compliance within 90 days of the effective date (September 1), if it was requested and justified.  Ambiguity resulted from the lack of clarity from the very top regarding when the policy would go into effect.  Corporate executives said in their directive that compliance was required by September 1.  Division management passed the directive down to business management and business management engaged IT.

IT and business operations management, aware that the regulation had been in the works since April, had obtained information from the regulators that compliance within 90 days was sufficient.  The estimated work required to comply would take about a calendar month.  The work was therefore planned to begin on September 15.  Feedback to division senior management and from them to the corporate executive level went unanswered.  

Was full implementation of the policy compliance required immediately on Sep 1?   Or, was compliance within 90 days acceptable?   

Without a definitive answer, operations and IT assumed that they better get ready with some evidence of compliance by September 1.   They strongly suspected that if they waited, there would likely be no reprieve and if they didn’t wait, they’d probably be let off the hook when the executives realized that 90-day compliance was fine.  

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They knew, as most project managers know, that getting a month’s worth of work done in less than half that time was highly unlikely.  They needed to find a solution that would satisfy the demand in the available time and then buy the time to complete a more complete solution.  In other words, there was a need for a scramble to get a minimally acceptable result done immediately. In this case, the team removed ambiguity by making a tactical decision.  The executive level directive and the ambiguity it caused would result in a sub-optimal solution with high risk of failure and extra cost to move to the ultimate solution.  The staff’s respect for their leadership was eroded.  The schedule for the planned initiative was threatened because resources had to be diverted to the compliance project.  

All this could have been avoided if the senior levels had responded quickly with clarification regarding the due date.  Ambiguity disappears when people take the time and effort to communicate quickly and clearly. 

Example: Ambiguous Role Definition

Here is another example.An employee with good project management and communication skills is assigned to a large complex program without clear understanding of her role.  She thinks that she reports to the CEO who has given her over to the executive to whom the point person responsible for the project reports.  No one clearly lays out their expectations of the role she is to play.  Relatively comfortable with ambiguity, she takes on a project manager role, focusing on communication planning with the intention of helping the program manager succeed by promoting transparency and critiquing written reports and other communications.  

The program manager, less used to and less comfortable with ambiguity, does not share information or engage in role negotiation.  Dysfunction follows.

In this case the participants did not take it upon themselves to remove the ambiguity by acknowledging and addressing it.  The new player made her life less ambiguous by pulling back.  She stopped doing anything but what she was directed to do by the program manager.  The program manager handled the ambiguity by ignoring the assigned person.  

Practical Reality

“Are these examples real?”  You might ask.  Well, it seems that they happen more frequently than one would think.  

People at every level make unfounded assumptions about the degree to which others understand what they say in the way they meant it to be understood.  They fail to take the time to be explicit and complete in their communication.  Others fail to ask for clarification or affirmation, maybe out of fear that they will be seen as slow-witted or because they think they understand.

Ways of avoiding ambiguity include active listening – making sure as the receiver of information you restate it in your own words and ask if you have it right.   Ask questions to clarify anything that might seem fuzzy or ambiguous to you.  As the sender, cultivate the facilitation skill of asking others to restate their understanding to make sure that there has been a meeting of the minds.  Ask them if they have any questions or need any further information before they can move forward.  In project work, putting things like objectives, role assignments and expectations in writing contributes to clarity and avoids ambiguity.  It doesn’t have to be anything like a formal document, a simple confirmation email will work.  As a leader, make sure those who work with you feel comfortable to raise questions and objections.

Recognize that the time and effort you take to avoid ambiguity will avoid rework, frustration and morale issues that lower productivity.  The more volatile, uncertain and complex your situation, the more important it is to minimize ambiguity by communicating clearly and completely.

Note that uncertainty is not the same as ambiguity.  Premature definition can be harmful.  Complex situations like organizational change and the exact nature of a complex product must evolve.  Evolution takes time and the ability to accept and work with uncertainty. One can be unambiguous (clear and explicit) about the fact that there is uncertainty.

The master project manager avoids ambiguity by communicating clearly, listening actively and ensuring that others mutually understand goals, roles and responsibilities.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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