building tolerance for ambiguity

High tolerance for ambiguity is becoming an important leadership trait in increasingly complex, networked environments, explains Riitta Raesmaa in Systems Intelligence, Serendipity and Listening for the Better Decisions. Three factors that can increase this tolerance are:

  1. Systems Intelligence Theory of Esa Saarinen,
  2. Value and Importance of Serendipity (the weak links and the edges),
  3. Value and Importance of Listening.

I had not heard of Esa Saarinen, but here is what Wikipedia says about SI:

Systems intelligence is human action that connects sensitivity about a systemic environment with systems thinking, thus spurring a person’s problem solving capabilities and invoking performance and productivity in everyday situations. Systems intelligence, abbreviated SI, is intelligent behavior in complex systems, that are often human in nature. Key concepts a person uses when acting systems intelligently are perception of systemic occurrences, feedback from the system’s structure and interaction with the system’s agents and subsystems.

Riitta’s three associations align with our initial work on core skills for our 21st century leadership project.

An example of “intelligent behaviour in complex systems”, is understanding when using a Probe — Sense — Respond approach would be appropriate, as per the Cynefin framework:

Complex, in which the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, but not in advance, the approach is to Probe — Sense — Respond and we can sense emergent practice.

In Solving Tough Problems, Adam Kahane explains what his colleague at Shell, Alain Wouters, told him about complex situations:

There is not “a” problem out there that we can react to and fix. There is a “problem situation” of which each of us is a part, the way an organ is part of a body. We can’t see the situation objectively: we can just appreciate it subjectively. We affect the situation and it affects us. The best we can do is to engage with it from multiple perspectives, and try, in action-learning mode, to improve it. It’s more like unfolding a marriage than it is like fixing a car.”

Enhanced serendipity can be an emergent property of personal knowledge mastery. PKM increases the chances of serendipitous learning or as Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favours the prepared mind”. Steven Johnson says that “Chance favours the connected mind.”  According to Ross Dawson“You cannot control serendipity. However you can certainly enhance it, act to increase the likelihood of happy and unexpected discoveries and connections. That’s what many of us do day by day, contributing to others like us by sharing what we find interesting.”

Listening, to others and ourselves, often gets lost in the deadline-driven organizational environment. We really need to listen to the environment. My friend Graham Watt shows that when you rely solely on technology in adapting to complex environments, the result can be death:

In Roland Huntford’s book, SCOTT AND AMUNDSEN, a full account is given of Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott’s epic competition to reach the South Pole first. Both parties relied on technologies. However, with the arrogance of so-called civilized societies of the time, Scott believed the Inuit to be savages with nothing to teach, and relied on current technologies as well as the British sentimentality towards animals. They wore Burberry cloth clothing, used gasoline tractors as well as ponies, and forsook dog teams for manly man-hauling of sleds. Amundsen, on the other hand, was a lifelong student of Inuit technologies. His sleds were lighter, he and his team dressed in various phases of Inuit clothing. Amundsen used dogs, a proven source of power in the Arctic, able to curl up and snooze at 50 below, and readily edible. A harsh use of them, but no worse than ponies freezing to death in their own sweat.

In the end, the Inuit-based technologies won, and the Amundsen team returned so comfortably they actually gained weight, and at one point, re-climbed a 1000 foot descent from the glacier in order to have another ski run. Meanwhile, Scott and his party, with admittedly bad weather, perished, Scott’s remaining moments spent penning poignant notes to his and his team’s loved ones. Scott emerged as the perceived romantic hero of the whole affair, instead of signaling the death of imperial arrogance. Ironically, Amundsen, the unbiased user of available technologies suited to the task, was dismissed in British circles as perhaps lacking in feeling.

Thus did glory and icy death trump Aquavit and a thousand years of winter experience.

Roald Amundsen portrait wearing fur skins

Roald Amundsen c. 1923

One Response to “building tolerance for ambiguity”

  1. gg

    Sadly. it seems that leadership is often responsible for introducing more ambiguity into systems.


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