The Era Of Ambiguity Leadership

Why is it that we discuss our need to “deal with ambiguity?”  Ambiguity is approached with a similar level of disdain as we have for garbage – “we’ve got a lot of ambiguity – can someone take care of it?”  Ambiguity should not be seen as a negative, rather it is truly empowering.

Ambiguity is a “grown-up” sandbox.  As children we were literally given a box of sand and left to our own devices.  Think about it, there were no instructions, but we still built amazing things.  From mystical castles to major excavation projects, the sandbox gave us freedom to create and to try new approaches.

Ambiguity in the office is similar.  You are assigned a task with limited definition – bring your product to a new marketplace, meet your earnings target – and with a wide open solution space.  This ambiguity – much like the sandbox – gives us freedom to develop our own solution.  We are empowered to define the problem for ourselves, identify the critical questions that, when answered, will meet our objective, and establish and follow our own plan for execution.

Ambiguity allows for discovery and development.  If a leader provides step-by-step instructions to meet an objective, ambiguity would be diminished and the goal could be reached faster, but at what cost?  Where could that leader have invested their time?  What improvements to our processes do we miss because we are not open to alternatives?

When we lead with ambiguity, we enable teams to own, to create, and to surprise.  By providing a clear vision, but not a specific set of actions, we avoid micro-managing or resurrecting mediocre approaches.  This requires us to reset expectations – projects may take longer or may lead to an unforeseen solution – but, we are developing our abilities to solve problems.

“Roadblocks” are good things.  Ambiguity will drive teams into “roadblocks” – this is a given.  “Roadblocks” are those places where the answer is unclear and where next steps are too many or few.  But, rather than an impasse, these “roadblocks” create opportunities for us to collaborate.

A “roadblock” gives us a near-term problem to solve, where we can roll-up our sleeves and brainstorm a path forward together – because individually we do not know how to solve it.  To resolve a “roadblock,” leaders and teams must work together on a level playing field – or incorporate external perspectives and guidance – to define and align on a path forward.

Recently, Celanese communicated a clear vision and mission for what we aspire to be.  In that communication we introduced our organization to our core values to reach ambitious long-term goals.  However, there is no defined path forward.  We find ourselves now with ambiguity, but with the power to fill in the gaps ourselves, to explore the options we have, and to discover our own solutions to reach our future.

Resources for Ambiguity

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About the author


Randy Skattum leads global marketing communications at Celanese. He is an experienced strategic and tactical marketer having led teams and projects in the Chemicals, Retail, and Consumer Packaged Goods industries focused on marketing, operations, new business development, pricing management, and brand strategy. When not in the office, he is a competent swing dancer, learned whisky enthusiast, ambitious improvisational actor, and the father of an energetic toddler.

There are 13 comments. Add yours.

  1. Karen Post says:

    Awesome blog post! And I had no idea of the depth of your side skills and talents. All impressive! Combined I’ll bet there are some interesting results.

    • Randy Skattum says:

      Thank you, Karen! I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

      Regarding my hobbies, typically I only find ways to incorporate improvisation into my day-to-day. However, what I’ve learned from the process of developing the other hobbies certainly helps me tackle new challenges.

  2. Frank Ling says:

    Good post. The “what to achieve” must be clear, but the “how to achieve” could be ambiguity, which provides the people with the room to think, to act inspiring their wisdom and engagement.

    • Randy Skattum says:

      Thank you, Frank! Great comment and great synthesis of the article. I do hope more individuals see “ambiguity” as an “opportunity.”

  3. Kelsey Kapsner says:

    Great article! Thanks for the creative insight- I agree that ambiguity should be seen as a positive rather than a “scary” negative. Change and challenge is a good thing! Also thanks for the great reading suggestions!

    • Randy Skattum says:

      Thank you, Kelsey!

      Enjoy the readings – I was trying to find a few articles that would continue the discussion and provide a few solutions for individuals that are scared by ambiguity. Let me know what you think!

  4. Gretchen Rosswurm says:

    Randy, thanks for your thoughts on ambiguity. I’m learning everyday that when things get ambiguious, the opportunities mulitply. That’s when the fun starts.

    • Randy Skattum says:

      Agreed, Gretchen and thank you.

      With a vision as your guide – but nothing more – you may have more ambiguity, but you also have the chance to learn, create, and explore.

      As an example, some of my most enjoyable meetings started wtih a well-defined goal and a blank whiteboard.

  5. Mark Rohr says:

    A good friend of mine once told me “everything you need to know about leadership you learned while playing in a sandbox”. Your ambiguity sandbox anology adds to my list of examples reinforcing his view.



    • Randy Skattum says:

      Thank you, Mark.

      I’ve experienced time and again where some of my earliest learnings continue to impact me in my career. I’m glad the example I shared resonated with you.

  6. André says:

    Great, Randy! Work with ambiguity is about to win the instinctive terror of the “scary world outside the cave” and it could be really challengeable. But to be innovative and create the world from ambiguity, we should be excited by the changes and value – more than respect – the differences.

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