Monday, February 25, 2008

Ambiguity Competencies

The comment Christine left was on the last blog was really interesting. It raises some very important and practical issues about using ambiguity for development in organisations.

Oddly when I ran a department at Cranfield University I used to research and teach competency development as one of my areas of interest. I have come across a couple of competencies for ambiguity I would agree with you that just about all of them miss the point or help others like managers to miss the point!

For me there are a couple of important issues here which broadly fall under four broad headings:
  1. Creating ambiguity for advantage
  2. Dealing with ambiguous situations to gain the advantage
  3. Leading others in times of ambiguity
  4. Developing ambiguity tolerance / resilience in organisations
1. Creating ambiguity for advantage

The first is that creating ambiguity works in certain situations, mainly those where there is an advantage to be gained from doing so. This requires excellent decision making capabilities, or the ability to know exactly when to create ambiguity and when to create clarity, both of which are different but connected cognitive skill sets. There is then the question about how to create differing levels of ambiguity or clarity for the effect required.

When we are working in organisations we concentrate on developing 6 areas of capability that all contribute to the ability to use ambiguity well:
  1. Emotional Resilience
  2. Decision Making
  3. Problem Solving
  4. Critical Thinking
  5. Creative Thinking
  6. Development of Autonomy
2. Dealing with ambiguous situations to gain the advantage

The second is that the major skill in dealing with ambiguous situations is to find the advantage inherent such circumstances, especially when just about everyone else is heading for the hills or a bunker somewhere nice and safe.
This requires a good level of emotional resilience. This is different from emotional intelligence which is also required. One of the things we do know about ambiguous situations is that with the exception of mode four individuals (See Modes of Leadership) they almost always bring about a change in people's emotional state. Heightened emotional states almost always reduce the effectiveness of cognitive operations (thinking). Therefore what happens is that when a person feels that things are ambiguous they will respond in one of a number of ways. These responses can range from total denial, construction of a new reality, attention being placed less ambiguous items, displacement behaviour and so on. Therefore competency frameworks need to look at emotional resilience as a separate (but linked) skill set from emotional intelligence. Interestingly this is where a lot of our work comes from. Helping organisations develop the thinking and skills to profit from ambiguity and part of that is developing emotional resilience.

As a side note here we discovered that skills or competency development programmes have greater impact when the cognitive side of things are addressed. In other words the thinking needs to develop with the skill which is one of our USP's and is based on the idea of modes of thinking which is embeded in the Modes of Leadership model. The reason being is that the system of logic we apply to any situation changes the way we see things and consequently behave or react, which is inextricably linked with our emotional responses. Which is why when we engage people in our Agile Leadership Programme (pdf) we develop all six skill sets at the:
  1. Behavioural,
  2. Cognitive
  3. Belief / attitudinal, and
  4. Emotional levels together.
This holistic approach accelerates the development process and means that graduates of the programme can deal with any situation that occurs, make good decisions are creative and critical and can stand on their own two feet in any situation.

In terms of recruiting similar issues abound.

I will answer issues 3 & 4 later

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