Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Tolerance for Ambiguity

“That’s stupid.”

As a professor, I gritted my teeth every time I heard a student say that. It was an attempt to shut down discussion of something that didn’t lend itself to an easy answer. Since then, I’ve seen it applied to all manner of things, from gadgets that don’t behave to other people’s motives.

It’s an expression of frustration at the inability to read a situation. If I’m confronted by something I don’t understand, either I’m at fault for not understanding it, or the thing itself defeats understanding. Calling it stupid is a way of blaming the thing.

The habit survives because sometimes it’s true. Some decisions or actions really are stupid, and are accurately described as such. In the twenty-first century, I think there’s a case to be made that the electoral college is genuinely stupid. Blackberry’s decision to launch a tablet without an email reader was truly stupid. It happens.

But moving too quickly to blame the thing itself can quickly become dysfunctional.

I had to smile when I saw this piece, which notes a correlation between creativity and the tolerance for ambiguity.

In managing people, ambiguity comes with the territory. That’s especially true when the people involved are intelligent, self-directed, and concerned only with a small corner of the organization.

Some people handle that by tuning out the ambiguity. One way to do that is to become a rule-driven martinet, enforcing rules as written because they’re written rules. This is the cop who pulls you over for doing 22 in a 20 zone.

The other way is to ignore the rules and go entirely by gut instinct. This is the preferred solution of every cop movie ever made. Just get the job done and don’t worry about “technicalities.” Except that those technicalities exist for reasons, and ignoring them doesn’t make them go away.

Administration necessarily involves living in that gray zone in which rules are both necessary and imperfect. Progress comes from accepting that and deciding to move forward anyway. The best administrators -- and I don’t place myself in this camp yet, though I’m trying hard to get there -- manage to refocus the ambiguity.

Which sounds better: uncertainty or possibility? Failure or learning experience? Internal politics or growing pains?

It likely won’t be long before there are some new deans on campus. I’ll be involved in the selection process. I would love to be able to spot the folks who can handle ambiguity, and even better, reframe it into a hopeful sense of possibility. Folks who can tell the difference between growing pains and fatal objections, between a failed experiment and a failed experimenter.

It strikes me as a kind of wisdom, though it’s not necessarily related to age. I’ve seen young adults who have it, and older adults who don’t. Experience helps, but I’m convinced that it only helps if you have the right framework with which to process it. An experienced martinet is still just a martinet.

Wise and worldly readers, is there an effective way to screen for the tolerance for ambiguity? Even better, is there a good way to suss out the people who see the kernel of promising future lodged in the teeth of the present? These hires are likely to matter a great deal, and I’d hate to scuttle some promising cultural change by hiring someone who’s too quick to call things stupid.