12 Guiding Principles for Business Success – No.8 – Learn to live with uncertainty and ambiguity.

It’s almost inevitable that whenever the topic of ‘What does it take to be good Entrepreneur’ is discussed it will be mere seconds before somebody mentions the R word – Risk. Usually in the context of the idea that to be a good Entrepreneur you need to be able to cope and deal with risk. I think that’s true to some degree, more accurately though I think it’s about an ability to work to identify and minimise risk. But arguably it runs deeper than that, it’s as much about an ability to cope with and be comfortable in handling uncertainty and ambiguity, so No.8 in our list of guiding principles is;

    Learn to live with uncertainty and ambiguity.

  • Don’t fear the unknown, grasp it as a potential source of opportunity.
  • Understand that asking the right question is almost invariably the necessary pre-condition to finding the right answer.
  • Get comfortable with the fact that generally there is rarely ‘one true way’ but a range of good to less good options.

Uncertainty, ambiguity and creative tension

We live in a business culture that prizes certainty in process, procedure and outcomes. Sorting the certain from the uncertain and the clear from the ambiguous is something that we seek from business planning, market research and a myriad of other business activities. But the Entrepreneurial mindset is one where uncertainty and ambiguity are the norm. The Entrepreneur says ‘That’s the way to go/market to attack/problem that needs solving’ but at the same time is also scanning the horizon for evidence to support alternative or better approaches, understanding that the plan may need adjusting in response to something as yet unknown or unforeseen. That’s why we see so many startups undergo a ‘pivot’ where the plan changes in response to something not known at the start. That ability to hold a clear vision, yet still remain open to the unknown leads to a creative tension and ambiguity in how new information should be assessed.  Arguably it is this capability that is at the heart or what others perceive as an ability to cope and live with risk.

The unknown as opportunity

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that creating certainty is always the ideal and desirable state to aim for. Conventional wisdom has it that before bringing a new product or service to market you should diligently conduct your market research and establish that there is going to be demand. Yet that approach was famously eschewed by the late Steve Jobs with his famous quote “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”.  Now there’s an ambiguity for you!

Sometimes taking what I call the ‘entrepreneurial leap of faith’ into the unknown is the only way to go. Several times in my own entrepreneurial journey I have made that leap, doing my own startup was a giant leap, there was absolutely no certainty it would work. Choosing to adopt a new and totally different sales approach instead of the usual and accepted way of doing things in our chosen market required a similar leap of faith. Fortunately in both cases the leap paid off, but there was no way I could be certain at the time of making the decision.  You soon learn though that making the assessment ‘it was a good decision’ can only be made with the wisdom of hindsight! The real lesson here though is that sometimes embracing and accepting the uncertain and the unknown can lead to opportunity and reward.

Looking for the right answer requires asking the right question

The never ending search to eliminate uncertainty and ambiguity in search of the ‘right’ answers will always continue though.  I frequently meet people who openly say that they are ‘looking for answers’.  I myself spent years in search of the magic bullet to fix sales, marketing, HR etc, only to finally conclude that no such magic bullets exist, although that search did evolve instead into some guiding principles! There is a problem though with the ongoing search for answers, namely getting to a good answer almost invariably first requires asking a good question! If your experience is anything like mine I have seen hours wasted in meetings and discussions where the ‘answer’ was being sought but remained elusive and difficult to pin down, often because nobody has really has first got to grips with the issue of what the question really is. I generally find that some effort in getting the question framed correctly will often lead far more easily to the answer!

One true way, or multiple possibilities.

The quest to eliminate uncertainty has one other interesting spin off. I am often struck by how many in business appear to get fixated on there being ‘one true way’ to achieve a given objective or outcome, as if getting from A to B is possible via one route and one route only.  I generally find that those who expound the ‘one true way’ approach are often particularly resistant to the idea of alternative approaches, it’s a kind of certainty myopia.  As you get to grips with some of the more abstract idea and concepts that are required to conduct business in our modern connected world, it does eventually dawn on you that a more relevant and useful way to think is in terms of ranges of options and possibilities. Situations and decisions are not always binary where you are forced to choose between option A or option B, more likely there are variations in play with a range of options where A and B sit at the extreme ends. The range of options in between represent multiple possibilities each with potentially differing outcomes. Some will be good, others less good, the really clever bit is to employ sound thinking and judgement so that you select the good ones as opposed to the less good ones!

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