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...