Is Ambiguity a gift or a problem?

As a leader, “Let’s nail this down!” a familiar American idiom, sounds like the most productive thing to do, right? You are getting to the point, ruling out bad options and moving forward. Not so fast! It could be the wrong choice.

As this man looking at the possible roads to the future, many leaders stand in front of their team and see ambiguity as a huge problem. They have the urge to end the discussion, make a decision, and move on to the next item on the agenda.

If you make a decision based on what you and the team know right now, the opportunity of ambiguity in the situation is wiped away. Ambiguity could be the component that helps you find a better answer your customer and ultimately for the marketplace.

A word or phrase is said to be ambiguous if it has at least two specific meanings that make sense in context. Example: “I’ll give you a ring tomorrow” could signify either the promise of a gift of jewelry for their finger or merely an intention to give the person a call via the telephone or cell phone. The words in this sentence are not exact, they are arbitrary and must be understood in the context of assumptions. For more information on the advantage of ambiguity, I recommend reading this article written by Emily Finn for MIT News Office.

As the article documents, words that have different meanings can be an advantage. When looking for the best possible solution to a challenge, working through ambiguity or looking at the possible scenarios can improve the results.

A product or project has a component of ambiguity if two or more final versions could make sense. Ambiguity increases the range of possible interpretations and outcomes. Most often, we look at our product for our potential marketplace or the product the customer has requested and try to envision how that product or project will look in the final form. This final form could hold two or more specific outcomes, all good, but not necessarily the best for you, your organization or your customer.

Making a decision without working thorough the ambiguity inherent in critical projects decreases the exploration of alternate answers that may be better than the first answer most of the team members wanted to nail down.

Ambiguity is good because it makes you think on new levels, analyze overlooked points, use critical thinking, conduct market research, do interviews of key people, configure “what if” scenarios about the possible outcomes. When this happens, you make your finished product better. The final version of the product or project is often ambiguous and fuzzy, much like this famous picture of the old woman and the young woman. Can you make out two different people? If you can see two different people, it is because you focused on the figure, studied it, looked at it from different angles, and then you were illuminated with two different figures in your mind.

Similarly, your “right” answer to a new product or a project that is stymied, may lay in focusing on it and the ambiguity surrounding it: the foggy, fuzzy forms it could take as it unfolds. The key to success, however, is not letting the ambiguity and the uncertainty of the final product stop productivity.

A word of caution: Ambiguity can cause confusion and can shut down your organization or individuals in your organization if they demand absolute clarity before they proceed.

Some people inherently don’t like situations where new variables can emerge and influence the finished product. They prefer to follow project plans that are well designed from start to finish with no variation. They are impatient with new data and continually assert that we “have to nail this down.” They want a decision on “which way” and they want it NOW. They are nervous in the face of the unknown and unproductive until decisions are made.

The new marketplace of the 21st century seems to insist that we tolerate more ambiguity. Often if you wait until you are crystal clear on all aspects of a product or service, you have missed the opportunity. As a leader with heavy responsibilities, you must make room for surprises and uncertain outcomes. Leaving room for uncertain outcomes is easier if you catch a vision of the benefits of ambiguity and use those benefits to your advantage.

Teach the people who work with you to recognize the opportunity of ambiguity and  to move out of their comfort zones as they seek to improve products and services. Help them see there’s more than one way to accomplish a task, more than one shape for the final product and you want them to find the most appropriate final answer.

Take advantage of ambiguity and use it to help you and your organization stay on the cutting edge.


About Karla Brandau

Karla Brandau is a leadership and time management/productivity guru. She specializes in 21st century leadership skills, especially when leading virtual teams and working with multiple generations in the workplace.

Karla is the founder of Workplace Power Institute and is launching a new leadership initiative with Douglas Ross with their forthcoming book on how to earn the gift of discretionary effort. She is a sought after keynote speaker and workshop presenter. Visit her web sites, Sign up for her newsletter/blog posts and get a free gift, “101 Time Management Quotes.”

For an energizing and collaborative conversation on your leadership needs, call Karla at 770-923-0883 or email her at

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