Friday, July 8, 2016

The Dangerous Face of Ambiguity

In a recent article by Forbes titled The 3 Secrets to Conflict Resolution, August Turak asserts that good leaders resolve conflict and great leaders leverage conflict to clarify ambiguity. 

Over the years Turak has labored to uncover the root causes of workplace conflict and has always found hard-working, well intentioned people who had unintentionally ignored the Ambiguities in the underlying situation.

He gives an example of a sales department and shipping department which were at each other’s throats. Both sides were convinced that they were the victims of a combination of incompetence and evil intentions on the part of the other. Digging deeper,  Turak discovered that the sales department was upset because product was not being shipped “on time.” Shipping was fed up with getting a flood of orders late in the day which couldn't be filled without working overtime. 

The real problem was that both sides were operating from entirely different assumptions about what “on time” meant. (In Design Thinking terms, they had conflicting Points of View)

The resolution was that any order received before 2:00 PM would ship the same day. Later orders would ship the next day. Once the new policy was adopted and distributed, the ambiguity disappeared along with the problem and the rancor.

This is very powerful stuff. The vast majority of the problems at work aren't technical and don't start out as financial, they are relational, having to do with out emotional side. That is why the first step in the DT process is Empathic Inquiry. Listening for the feelings.

Tuak and Adizes agree that problems are solved most creatively by using the tension produced by ambiguity and resolving differences in opposing points of view.

Turak suggests that of all types of ambiguity ambiguity about execution is most likely to lead to disaster. This is the How and When elements of the Why, What, Who, When, Where, How problem solving/story telling framework. Ambiguity about when who is passing what to whom almost guarantees that the task won't eb done "on time "and the postmortem recriminations will begin. Turak states; 

"In business, “crisp execution” is the Holy Grail, and crisp execution relies on eliminating ambiguity."

In clarifying ambiguity a key question is; “Where’s the paper trail?” If all you have are verbal communications based on memory, there will be a near infinite variety of contradictory interpretations.  Internal friction is usually not the result of either incompetence or bad intentions. It is the result of people operating from very different assumptions about their respective responsibilities. (POVs)

One of Turak's tactics to eliminate the problems caused by ambiguity before they can arise is following up with a summary note; While his memory is still fresh, he records in writing everything that was agreed upon during a meeting or phone call and sends it to all the participants. He invites everyone to either “sign off” or get back to him if his summary is either incorrect or incomplete. He also copies everyone who wasn't at the meeting that might be affected by the decisions, in order to avoid anyone being “blindsiding” further down the road.

(The rest of the article was so well written that I'm going to basically quote it directly from here on. -df)

We often hear that success is largely a factor of how many friends we make. However, success also depends on how many enemies we don't make. Clear, written communication is remarkably successful at keeping enemies to a minimum. This record keeping discipline also forces meeting facilitators to focus on negotiating clear, unambiguous, mutually agreed upon action items. This in turn moves the meeting, project or sale along much more quickly.

The vast majority of internal squabbles are leadership problems rather than people problems. Management’s job is to make sure that the process by which people enter into agreements is formalized without becoming burdensome. When disputes arise from miscommunication and misunderstanding, it is the lack of records, policies, procedures, and processes which allows conflicts in the first place.

Substantive meetings should always produce an internal “contract;” and those contracts should be clearly written, mutually agreed upon, and meticulously kept.  Staying on top of this process takes discipline, but in the long run it pays off in increased productivity, team work, and perhaps most importantly, morale. Once people have discovered that, without the proper documentation, pleas for “justice” will fall on deaf ears, they quickly start taking notes and disputes begin to disappear.

Step One in crippling ambiguity is accurate note keeping. A commitment to follow up “soon” is ambiguous. A promise to follow up at 3:00 PM on November 16th is not.

Step Two is overcoming the misconception that creating a paper trail is a waste of valuable time. A typical summary takes three minutes to write. These communications not only make things run far more smoothly, but save countless hours in ex-post-facto conflict resolution. On a side note, actually recoding the meeting is a powerful way to capture what happened.

Step Three is overcoming our tendency for using ambiguity as tool for staying off the hook. Ambiguity in business is often connected with fear of accountability. We resist making clear commitments because someone may hold us accountable if something goes wrong. (Fear of Failure -df

Much of human interaction, consciously or unconsciously, is an attempt to hold others accountable, yet we all also want some wiggle room in ambiguous, complex situations. As a result, we default to ambiguous commitments like “I’ll try” rather than “I’ll do.” Ambiguity begets ambiguity. The way to head the problem and conflicts off is to clarify things as soon as possible and record the finding and decisions.

BTW - If you insist on accountability from others, you'd best have it first in yourself.

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