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What's wrong with management today part 1: ambiguity is the norm, get used to it!

I began writing this post a number of weeks ago without a clear sense of what I was writing about. Getting clear is something we all need to work on yet clarity is mostly elusive, choices remaining and ambivalence reining. I was speaking with a CEO recently who was clearly frustrated, if not agitated. When asked what was so upsetting he responded that “I feel completely torn between my anger over things not getting done and people not taking responsibility, and holding the optimism for our bright future.” We all feel stuck between opposing forces at times and most experience the discomfort of “not knowing”. Being comfortable with ambiguity (a lack of decisiveness or commitment resulting from a failure to make a choice between alternatives) is a quality that is critical for everyone in today’s organization.

McKinsey recently surveyed its subscribers on the use of social media across the enterprise. What interested me about the survey was how social media was expected to help "flatten" the organization, moving the authority for work to the employee, reducing the involvement of "management". Finding ways to improve communications to all employees and more transparently distributing available data will diminish the hierarchy, which is consistent with "servant leadership", "self-managed teams", "holacracy", "Team of Teams" and, as one client refers to it, a more "pluralistic" enterprise. The history of management has been peppered with this tension between how much leaders must command and control versus moving the authority and decision making for work to the person doing the work. In the United States, self managed systems have been successfully employed since the birth of the American enterprise in 1600s New England. Yet, “getting to a point where you trust… anyone to make decisions…  because… they have the same information and objectives you do” (McChrystal and Fussell, Team of Teams, 2015) does not mean that they are equipped to deal with the often overwhelming pulling forces, tradeoffs and ambiguity present in an organization.

It is not hard to imagine that the further “down” one pushes authority and responsibility, the more tenuous and ambiguous it must feel. Yes, the more we give authority to people doing the work, the less we “control” and the less opportunity there is for “telling” people what to do. There’s the rub—distributing authority for work may increase ambiguity and our related anxieties. The more we expect people to make decisions the more we put them into a position that many are ill-prepared to manage. This is especially true if the organization is not aligned, does not have a means to set goals and measure success, and so on—a surprising large number of even successful systems that we work in suffer from not having well articulated and distributed “operating systems”, “scorecards” or “dashboards”. Still, we know that moving the authority for work to the people responsible for doing the work leads to increased productivity, motivation and a more efficient system.

Our experience tells us that some decisions are indeed hard, with no clear answers. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a GPS for all decisions? Yes, we need to get comfortable “not knowing”, being patient and searching for data in both the soft (people) and hard (technical) parts of our organizations. Ambiguity will dissipate when there is alignment between people and teams, when everyone has a common set of goals and when the progress against those goals are transparently displayed. Secondly, people and teams who “fail fast” and learn from their mistakes and failures can better navigate this terrain. As one client notes, “the ability to look at a problem, generate a hypothesis, test, learn and cycle through” is critical to making decisions. We will eventually come to a fork in the road but with a little discipline, the road ahead should be clearer.