Insights for Greater Organisational Agility

| By TMA World


To find agility in a borderless and complex business environment, most organisations have adopted some form of matrix structure, and have identified competencies enabling that type of organisation to function.

In many lists of matrix management competencies you’ll find ‘tolerating ambiguity’; some commentators actually refer to ‘embracing complexity’. The problem with these descriptions is that they imply a passive acceptance of ambiguity.  If we look up the meaning of ‘tolerate’ we find definitions like allow or permit, recognize and respect.  Most of the people I interact with who work in a matrix are passive-aggressive toward it rather than tolerant of its ambiguity.

The matrix organization inevitably contains ambiguities.  The intersecting lines in a matrix represent different perspectives, accountabilities, interests, priorities, skill sets, and knowledge domains that together produce significant ambiguity.  But does the inevitability of ambiguity lead us to the conclusion that tolerance of ambiguity is the appropriate competency for those who manage and work in a matrix.  Should we be hiring for ‘tolerance of ambiguity’?

Let me take a step back.  We all need to be aware of the nature of problems we are dealing with in a matrix (and beyond). There are complicated problems which can seem impossible and overwhelming, but which can be solved by expert-input, algorithms, and standardized procedures that once established are repeatable.  Complex problems, sometimes called ‘wicked’ problems, are a different breed.
John Camillus, University of Pittsburgh Professor, identified five key criteria for categorizing a problem as ‘wicked’ (Strategy as a Wicked Problem, Harvard Business Review, May 2008):

• There are many stakeholders with different values and priorities
• The issue’s roots are complex and tangled
• The problem is difficult to come to grasp and changes with every attempt to address it
• The problem is essentially unique
• There’s nothing to indicate the right answer to the problem; the search for solutions never stops

Managing such a problem requires constant experimentation, continuous learning, and ongoing adaptation.  Solutions are not true or false, but better or worse.  Brain surgery and putting a person on the moon are complicated problems; making societal/cultural changes are complex given the multitude of independent and interdependent variables always in a state of flux.  A matrix organisation is likely trying to manage complicated and complex problems.

Most of the literature warns of trying to graft solutions to complicated problems onto complex problems – they are totally inadequate to the task, and may cause more harm than good.  Think, however, of another scenario – tending to treat complicated problems as complex problems. 
Some years ago, Microsoft (Education Competencies: Dealing with Ambiguity) pointed to the dangers of what they called ‘overdoing dealing with ambiguity’, i.e. seeing complex problems everywhere.  When we assume a problem is complex (because it looks and feels really difficult) we may forego doing enough work to gauge its true nature.  Instead, we may:
• Create obstacles to problem solving by assuming a problem is complex
• Reject what has gone before as irrelevant
• Undervalue systematic problem solving
• Move to conclusions without gathering enough data
• Favor the new and risky at the expense of tested and tried solutions

To help avoid overdoing dealing with ambiguity, Microsoft proposes three questions:
1. Am I making decisions too quickly without a reasonable amount of data?
2. Am I trying to reinvent the wheel rather than using what I know?
3. Am I overanalyzing a problem?
When we work in a matrix, we can feel overwhelmed by the seeming insolubility of the situations we find ourselves in.  If we take a helicopter view we may see matrix challenges in a different light – as complicated and, therefore, manageable with the right investment of time, right analysis and right interventions.
When hiring, we can look to candidates to give examples of when they have been able to work by tolerating ambiguity.  More importantly, we should also uncover examples of what they have done in the workplace to minimize ambiguity.  For example, can you find evidence of when they have . . .
• Anticipated ambiguity and acted proactively to manage it
• Acted as a champion of clarity in the matrix
• Identified which aspects of a problem can be known and controlled
• Looked for root causes beneath the surface complexity
• Probed deeply for clearer answers
• Questioned assumptions about the nature of a problem
• Broke down ‘impossible’ problems into more manageable parts
• Reframed problems to offer simpler perspectives
• Provided sharp focus and clear direction without having the big picture
• Sought more – and more accurate – information
• Pushed for more clarity of roles and responsibilities, decision rights, and reporting relationships
• Asked, “Do we need to tackle the big, wicked problem to achieve a good outcome(s)?”
• Simplified or eliminated processes
• Made and communicated clear decisions
• Prioritized stakeholders (minimizing those who need to be consulted)
• Engaged others in reaching a mutual understandings

Ambiguity will always be with us.  It is part of the human condition, but ‘toleration’ should not be our default response.  Ambiguity often results from over generality or imprecision, or not investing enough time in understanding the context in which the problem is embedded.
People get stressed, exhausted, and often feel powerless working in a matrix, and the best talent often leaves.  We could use a lot more minimising and a lot less tolerating of ambiguities in matrix organizations.  

Think about the following questions:
• What are the primary sources of ambiguity in my workplace?
• How do I typically respond to ambiguity?
• Can much of the ambiguity I face be minimized?
• What must I stop or start doing to gain more clarity?

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