By Neil Cooper, Director

Why Handling Ambiguity Is An Essential Skill

Getting good at handling ambiguity helps you deal with an ambiguous world. If you wait for everything to be clear it’ll be too late. Look at Brexit, consider the adoption of voice control speakers, imagine a world where every store functions like Amazon Go. That’s why hiring for ambiguity it one of our priorities here at Sense Worldwide.

Events are happening that disrupt how things are done; they upend categories and reframe our expectations for what is possible. There was a clear before and after and the transition was rapid. It’s happened and we can’t go back even if we wanted to.

To succeed in this world we need to get comfortable operating in the knowledge that the basis on which we make our decisions today may have fundamentally changed by tomorrow. Thinking of things this way means that nothing is ever the final word or solution. There was the best idea with the information available at the time.

We need to be prepared to update our ideas when new information becomes available.


Handling Ambiguity Can Mark You Out For Success

As a leader, having confidence that a positive outcome will be achieved despite not knowing exactly what that might look like is reassuring to your team members. It frees your team to focus on their own efforts to help deliver the desired outcome for the team as a whole.

You might be a brand leader building a new product pipeline. You’re guiding your team through the unfamiliar territory of innovation where you don’t know what product concepts you’ll come up with but you trust in the process to get you where you need to go. Being comfortable with this ambiguity will free your team to learn about innovation, figure out how and when they might contribute and be a key part of a positive overall outcome.

Likewise, if you’re playing a supporting role in a team, show that you are able to deliver when there is some uncertainty about exactly how the end result will be achieved. Show that you can reserve judgement and trust in a process to deliver the results your team needs.

It sends the signal that you are someone who can be relied upon to get the job done. It means leadership don’t have to doubt that you’ll step up. Every team member can focus on their job, confident that everyone else will do what’s required and the team as a whole will benefit.


Businesses Thrive With Teams That Can Handle Ambiguity

Businesses often need to make decisions in uncertain situations. Being able to run experiments; to test, learn and iterate are part of our toolkit for figuring out what the right decisions to make might be. They also mean we must accept that the ideas and hypotheses we come up with today might need to be re-thought in light of new information tomorrow.

People who thrive in this environment will very likely apply a degree of logic; they will be able to break down a large challenge into smaller, contributing steps; tackling each step in turn. They will recognise that by building incrementally the outcome will become increasingly clear.

Think of this approach like working through an algorithm. There is an overall objective in mind but the effect of each step to get there depends on the decisions taken at the previous steps. The end result is the cumulative effect of all the choices made at each step in the process.

Very often even the most experienced leaders don’t fully understand exactly how best to solve a problem. What they do have is an ability to figure things out and get the job done. They can do this efficiently because they can handle ambiguity.


How To Hire For Ambiguity

Identifying people who can not only handle ambiguity but also thrive in uncertain situations is not something you can easily do by asking direct questions.

You need to find ways to create a situation where you can observe their behaviour and have them show you how they deal with it.

We have previously described how we created a hiring process to do the heavy lifting. Here we focus in on Step 2 of our process to lift the lid on how we identify people who can effectively handle ambiguity.

Once we have initially screened applicants using an online questionnaire we invite them to complete an online assessment.

  • We share a link to a 16min long TED Talk about artificial intelligence.
  • We ask applicants to write an executive summary about the TED Talk and return it to us no later than 1hr after they receive the link.
  • Applicants then have an additional 30min to record and send us a video describing their experience of completing the assessment.

The instructions we provide give enough information for applicants to successfully complete the assessment. We know this because we have run this 20 times and have received some outstanding submissions.

However, some people do struggle.

Some applicants ask a lot of questions to ‘clarify’ our expectations. Some applicants ask us to tell them again what they should do. Some applicants return their submissions late. Some applicants make a lot of errors in their writing. Some applicants tell us they didn’t enjoy the experience.

Our main focus with this assessment is to screen for being able to handle ambiguity. There are other benefits too.

We value people who read widely and appreciate the cultural impact of wider trends. Asking for an executive summary about a TED talk on AI means we hear what people think about one of the most significant technological advances happening today. This gives us an insight into what applicants know and how they think about important issues.

We get an insight into how people perform under pressure; their attention to detail; their ability to convey their thoughts in a logical and engaging way.


Free Tools For You

We would be delighted to share our process with you.

We have created two email templates. The first provides an overview of the assessment and how to schedule a mutually convenient time. The second provides instructions for how the applicant should complete the assessment.

Contact me now via email and I will share these templates with you for free.

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