Open Up to the Unexpected

Quote of the Week

“The future is uncertain… but this uncertainty is at the very heart of human creativity.”

— Ilya Prigogine

Open Up to the Unexpected

by Tony Alessandra

“Ambiguous” means having several possible meanings, interpretations, or outcomes. Some people don’t like ambiguous situations where new variables can pop up any time, or where novel outcomes emerge rather than being designed from the beginning. It has to be Either/Or. One way or the other. They get nervous in the face of the unknown. They’ll say: “Let’s nail this down.” “Let’s choose one and go for it,” way before an idea has been fully developed. At some point that approach may be necessary. But rigid people like to get closure on one meaning, one interpretation, one outcome, as early as possible. And often that approach leaves out the contributions of other people. It certainly leaves out the possibility of novelty and serendipity.

We’re all being asked to tolerate more ambiguity these days. Technology is changing the nature of the work we do, or in some cases, whether we have any work to do at all. For the past 20+ years we’ve been experiencing tremendous ambiguity in gender roles – what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman.

If you’re in a role of leadership or responsibility, there’s no doubt you must make room for surprises and uncertain outcomes. Imagine being told in 1962 that the Soviets had nuclear missiles positioned on Cuba aimed at the United States, and that they might fire them, or they might not. John F. Kennedy faced that ambiguity. Imagine yourself on March 9, 1965, leading several thousand demonstrators in a march for civil rights in Selma, Alabama, where only two days earlier, hundreds of people had been beaten and attacked by police dogs for doing the same thing. Martin Luther King, Jr. faced a very ambiguous situation.

Fortunately, most of us don’t have to deal with that level of uncertainty. If you’re a person who has trouble dealing with ambiguity, you like to do routine things with familiar people who behave in traditional ways. Changes and surprises make you uncomfortable because they alter the routine.

If you recognize yourself in this discussion and feel that developing a greater tolerance for ambiguity would allow you the flexibility you’d like to have, here are some tips:

  • Begin to stretch yourself a bit by taking on different duties and activities beyond your comfort level. In other words, consciously introduce some novelty and ambiguity into your life.
  • Avoid doing things the same way every time. Realize that there’s almost always more than one way to accomplish a task.
  • When you encounter a situation that has several possible outcomes, don’t try to avoid it. Take the time to consider each possible outcome, from the most optimistic to the most pessimistic.


Copyright © 1996-2007 Alessandra & Associates, Inc. Dr. Tony Alessandra can be reached at http://www.alessandra.com.

Coaching Call to Action

This tip may not contain new information for you. You may thrive in ambiguity and uncertainty. If so, please forward this to a co-worker or friend who you think would benefit from this tip. If you are the type of person that likes structure, knowing what will happen next, and moving into action, take some time to consider Tony’s tips this week. You will learn something new about yourself and you may even want to make some changes.