Friday, May 26, 2006

Seeing reality & solving problems I

Whilst working with a group of senior project and programme managers yesterday the issue came up about whether their organisation was in a certainty, risk, uncertainty or choas situation at the moment. The discussion raged for some time with small groups arguing that thier company was infact firmly in one of the states of either certainty, risk, uncertainty or choas, each bringing their own evidence to bear on the discussion. Firstly it was interesting that the certainty camp, whilst vocal were actually in the minority compared to the other three groups.
What was really interesting about this discussion were the perceptions of reality being put forward. The whole group stopped when I suggested that actually it was most likely that the organisation is and always was in all four states at the same time. It was just that the perceptions differed depending on what was happening for the individuals at the time and how close to their prime fears they were. In other words their focus was on the presenting symptoms as they as individuals saw them, the importance of which were largely determined by their emotional reaction to the situation. When we examined what each of them were noticing around them this was borne out.
The very first problem when problem solving is: do you actually have the problem? Is our view of reality real? When you examine the demise of companies it is usually revealed that the board were fooling themselves about the current situation. So how do you get to reality?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Diversity and ambiguity

What are the connections between tolerance for ambiguity and orientation to diversity?
It would appear that people who are able to cope well with situations of high uncertainty without undue stress also tend to really value a wide diversity of people to challenge and inform their thinking. On the other hand people with a low tolerance for ambiguity, people who prefer the comfort of more certain environments tend to also prefer to deal with people who are like them. They tend not to like being challenged by different thinking and ideas that do not accord with their own. For the ability to accept and value diversity read the ability to accept and value a diversity of thinking. In essence there appears to be a link between cognitive broadbanding, tolerance for ambiguity and an understanding that diversity can help to extend ones thinking and help with problem solving.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The paradox of ambiguity tolerance and tolerance for diversity

I have been doing some work around the amount of structure someone needs. A case came up recently where a manager who had a very high tolerance for ambiguity was head of a team that had a low tolerance for ambiguity.

The situation was that the manager needed no structure, to him everything was an exploration; he followed ideas, went with some very odd ideas and came up with quite brilliant products. He also had a lot of failure which he was quite happy with he as would just move on if an idea didn't work. He hated having structure placed on him from above, consequently he placed no structure on his team, which they reported as being stressful. They wanted direction, guidance and targets, such things made them feel comfortable and 'loved'. These were the last thing he wanted, he saw being given such things as 'failure'. Why else would someone try to impose direction, guidance and targets unless they were unhappy with what he was doing? Giving such structure was in his eyes was only done in failure conditions.
His team on the other hand felt that he didn't care about them because he didn't provide this for them.
It would appear that an individuals ambiguity tolerance and the need for structure are highly inversely correlated - the higher the level of tolerance for ambiguity the less structure an individual needs. However this can cause problems with individuals for which structure helps them function efficiently. Looking at the work of Michael Kirton there are a number of other significant correlations:

People with low tolerance to ambiguity (Adaptors) tend to be:

  • Characterised by precision, reliability, efficiency; seen as methodical, prudent, disciplined
  • Concerned with resolving problems rather than finding them
  • Seeks solutions to problems in tried and understood ways
  • Reduces problems by improvement and greater efficiency, with maximum of continuity and stability
  • Seen as sound, conforming, safe, dependable
  • Does things better
  • Liable to make goals of means
  • Seems impervious to boredom, seems able to maintain high accuracy in long spells of detailed work
  • Is an authority within given structure
  • Challenges rules rarely, cautiously, when assured of strong support and problem solving within consensus
  • Tends to high self-doubt when system is challenged, reacts to criticism by closer outward conformity; Vulnerable to social pressure and authority; compliant
  • Is essential to the functioning of the institution all the time, but occasionally needs to be ‘dug outÂ’ of the current systems
  • When collaborating with innovators: supplies stability, order and continuity to the partnership
  • Sensitive to people, maintains group cohesion and cooperation; can be slow to overhaul a rule
  • Provides a safe base for the innovatorÂ’s riskier operations

People with a hitolerancence to ambiguity on the otherhand tend to be:

  • Innovators:Seen as thinking tangentially, approaching tasks from unsuspected angles; undisciplined, unpredictable
  • Could be said to discover problems and discover less consensually expected avenues of solution
  • Tends to query a problemÂ’s concomitant assumptions; manipulates problems
  • Is catalyst to settled groups, irreverent of their consensual views; seen as abrasive, creating dissonance
  • Seen as ingenious; unsound, impractical
  • Does things differently
  • In pursuit of goals liable to challenge accepted means
  • Capable of detailed routine (system maintenance) work for usually only short bursts. Quick to delegate routine tasks
  • Tends to take control in unstructured situations
  • Often challenges rules. May have little respect for past custom
  • Appears to have low self-doubt when generating ideas, not needing consensus to maintain certitude in face of opposition; less certain when placed in core of system
  • In the institution is ideal in unscheduled crises; better still to help to avoid them, if can be trusted by adaptors
  • When collaborating with adaptors: supplies the task orientations, the break with the past and accepted theory
  • Appears insensitive to people when in pursuit of solutions, so often threatens group cohesion and cooperation
  • Provides the dynamics to bring about periodic radical change, without which institutions tend to ossify

From Adaptors & Innovators - Why New Initiatives Get Blocked by Dr M J Kirton

An interesting paradox when mixed in the workplace.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Belief, Knowledge, Fact and Certainty

"Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd." - Voltaire

What is the difference between belief, knowledge, fact and certainty?

This is an important question when considering ambiguity and one that many previous philosophers have considered. Most famously John Dewey in The Quest for Certainty (1933), considered this and noted that Locke saw knowledge and certainty as co-existant, that to be certain is to know and that "the quest for certainty has always been an effort to transcend belief." (Chaper 2), belief being anything that we don't know to be 'true'. True therefore also equates with certainty and knowledge, a fact is knowledge with the certainty of truth. Knowledge therefore is usually seen as being superior to belief.
The idea that knowledge equates to fact and as such they must be true - more than just a belief. However knowledge is being continually updated. What was a fact 100, 50, 20, 10, 5 years ago or even yesterday may not be one now. All knowledge is an argument. Each argument justifies certain evidence which is in turn used to back up that argument. Facts are those arguments that we currently accept or assume to be correct in order to continue the debate or in the face of a lack of evidence to the contrary. In effect what we know is what we currently believe to be true. We can never be certain that any knowledge will not be superceded.

"We really only know, when we don't know; with knowledge, doubt increases." ~ Goethe

Saturday, April 01, 2006

It could be a joke but I'm uncertain.

Heisenberg is stopped for speeding by the police. The officer asks the famous physicist "Do you know how fast you were going, sir?",
To which Heisenberg responds, "No, but I know exactly where I am".

The biggest flop since the Morris Ital... The Heisenbergmobile. The problem is that when you look at the speedometer you get lost.

Is economic uncertainty the root cause of poverty?

A blog was posted recently about economic risk and uncertainty quoting Hilton Root Capital and Collusion: The Political Logic of Global Economic Development:

"Risk, uncertainty and (under)development
Uncertainty refers to events about which knowledge is imprecise, whereas risk relates to events that can be assessed with some degree of certainty. Transforming uncertainty into risk is how
countries grow rich. Lack of institutions that make managing risk possible is the root cause of the disparity in economic performance between developed and developing countries. All developing countries share the same central weakness. Living under deep uncertainty, people in developing societies cannot frame the most basic decisions about investment or
consumption in relation to how the future will unfold. They cannot make decisions based on
reasonable probabilities about the results of their actions, nor can they identify a feasible range of alternatives needed to plan and organize a better future. They can expect a shortsighted
response from the people with whom they must interact: people who, like them, prioritize near-term goals rather than long-term ones.
Poverty deprives households of the ability to take actions that have a long-term impact on the
key variables in their lives. Faced with deep uncertainty about the future, they do not accumulate capital."

Is there really a causal link between uncertainty and poverty? That the ability to be able to predict the future with some degree of accuracy (risk) is vital in the fight against poverty. That the drive for governments should be the reduction of ambiguity and increase in stability or certainty of conditions so that people can manage limited risk? There appears to be somewhat of a paradox here. That to make money requires some form of risk. The lower the risk the less potential profit there is to be made. The higher the risk more money that can usually be made but it is less likely that you will actually make any money. Is there then a threshold point where risk becomes uncertainty to the point that people will no longer take a risk and sort of implode? Clearly where there is a high risk to life, like in a war zone it would appear poverty will prevail and indeed looking at many war torn countries the conditions hardly exist for a flourishing capitalist system of accumulation. And yet in such conditions some people do flourish without resorting to violence and extortion. Excluding famine and environmental disaster where the basic provisions required for life are absent, I wonder if uncertainty really is the problem or it is peoples perceptions, attitudes and limiting beliefs about a situation (and possibly the fact that most of the current systems of profit are actually based on exploitation at some level) are the actual factors which creates poverty. Uncertainty for some provides opportunity, for those that reframe high risk and are comfortable with it. Most entrepreneurs have a history littered with failure, bankruptcy's, poverty, close shaves and numerous losses as they kept launching themselves at new and uncertain futures. Even entrepreneurs in unstable situations.
I wonder...

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Every day risk aversion and a solution

It is amazing how in every day dealings we find real risk aversion and amazingly low tolerance to ambiguity. I have been selling a car on eBay. I had the usual pile of enquiries about this and that and when the sale ended the winner was a chap who had fired many questions my way. The car is a good car, about three years old, with a full service history and well looked after. Once he had won the car I received a phone call from the winner asking for a series of numbers from the paperwork. When I enquired as to why he wanted to check with the authorities if the car was not stolen, part of a finance deal etc. Fine I gave him the details and he came back within the hour and said that the car had checked out fine but one of the document numbers was wrong. We double checked and I phone the authorities. Indeed the number was wrong. The explanation I got was that there must have been an administration error as everything else checked out. I relayed this on to the winning buyer and he wasn't convinced. So I gave him the details of the person I had spoken to so that they could confirm that this was an error and everything was fine.
He duly rang them and then came back to me. "I'm not sure, I need the paperwork 100%, it's got to be 100% if there is an error it's not 100%."
I asked how this affected the car and the sale.
He replied "I'm not certain what to do now. The number isn't 100%"
I responded (calmly) "As you heard the chap at the licensing agency it appears to have been a computer error on their behalf. Everything else checks out. I will personally vouch for the car and write you a letter that it is fine. I've had it since new."
"I'm not happy, that number isn't right".
Thinking that some form of guarantee might work unstick this situation I suggested, "Look I will sign a letter to you stating that if the car turns out not to be mine I will refund you the full amount"
"Yes but the number, it's just not right".
Eventually the only way to unstick the situation was to remind him that he should have checked this before bidding and that the bid was legally binding. That did the trick. The suggestion of a threat of even more dire consequences resulted in a final "Well I'm sure it will be alright. You sound like a nice guy, someone I could trust really."
It's truly amazing how when faced with real risk aversion (remember risk is perceptual and therefore individual) presenting a greater risk can create movement with the chronically risk averse!

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Wiki certainty

In any research into ambiguity and all things allied to it you necessarily start to consider the notion of certainty. A great online resource these days is often wikipedia ( with a great many experts contributing to it's ever increasing knowledge base. Clearly you have to be careful about what is written there as anyone can contribute to it, including the less well informed and the prankster, however it can be interesting to visit as long as you verify it's contributions. Considering that the whole endeavor of any encyclopedia is to define concepts and therefore reduce levels of uncertainty about those constructs, wikipedia has an interesting omission. It was somewhat of a surprise therefore, that when I searched for certainty, to be automatically redirected to the probability pages ( The one thing that wiki is trying to provide is missing! I will be fixing this in the next couple of weeks and start the wiki on certainty. At the moment wiki has no certainty, but plenty of probability, uncertainty, ambiguity and chaos.

Monday, March 20, 2006

A consultants dilemma

I am currently consulting with a large financial house in the UK who are, like many other companies, struggling with change in a large and dispersed company. The problems appear to be many and include what the outcomes of the change should be, how to increase the tolerance of ambiguity of those that have to lead and those that have to go through the changes necessary, what the process should be to effect that change, as examples.
What is really interesting about such situations is that senior managers, when faced with the prospect of leading such change will reach out for consultants to help to provide some sense of certainty in what is perceived as an ambiguous and high risk situation. Thus a paradox arises, how to increase the tolerance of the leaders to ambiguity so that they can find the opportunities in such situations whilst at the same time allowing them to move forward into a new world with some confidence without creating dependency. Of course many consultations would argue (in private) that they actually want to create dependency and keep the customer coming back for more - profit over ethics. Asking such consultants at the start what their exit strategy is can be enlightening! Many will create the appearance of certainty and comfort for organisational leaders as this increases dependency on the consultants. A consultant who states that their aim is to increase tolerance to ambiguity must at the same time be increasing independence in their client. Increased independency necessarily means that the client learns to solve their own problems. If they can solve their own problems they don't need a consultant.
Some leaders however are so risk averse that they actively want the comfort of the certainty peddled by the consultants without realising the dangers of dependency inherent in such a situation. Needless to say it is a rare consultant who points this out to a prospective client.