“You need to teach the comfort with ambiguity,” ex-Red Hat CEO and IBM president Jim Whitehurst told Michael Gladwell in a podcast interview, “and that’s a tough thing to do.”
It’s tough but necessary because most businesses operate in an ambiguous space. And the same is true for life outside of work. Most questions we face don’t have a right or wrong answer, only different trade-offs.
With ambiguity being such a prevalent feature, it’s best to become comfortable with it. Otherwise, you might end up in analysis paralysis, stuck searching for an unambiguous, but unachievable, truth. Or worse, you might become emotionally invested in your choice, sticking with it even in the face of new information that shows it was the wrong one.
Comfort with ambiguity, Whitehurst explains, powers innovation:
[C]omfort with ambiguity and recognizing that there are things that there is no firm, hard answer to, combined with engineering skills, are what enables great engineers to say, “I’m going to learn from others. I’m going to try. I’m going to experiment. I’m going to come up to an answer.” There is no right answer to solving X, Y, Z innovation. There are multiple approaches, and getting people comfortable with that.
Unfortunately, our education systems optimize for the exact opposite. To score a test, there need to be correct answers. From early in life, we’re molded to look for clear solutions, when in reality, they are few and far between.
This conditioning for black and white thinking works because our brains crave predictability. We desperately want to be in control.
To succeed in business, but also to find some resemblance of inner peace in front of the overwhelming uncertainty of our future, we need to accept ambiguity.
Think of ambiguity as opportunity.
It’s an invitation to act, to try different things and learn from them.
In a sense, knowing that there are no right or wrong answers is liberating. It lowers the barrier to getting started. You don’t need to have all the answers. You cannot have all the answers. So you might as well pick something and get started.