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Organizational Change: Working Through Ambiguity

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Get clear on organizational ambiguity

Ambiguity, in short, means there is room for more than one interpretation. Thanks to a global pandemic that sent the world into economic uncertainty, changed the way people live and work, and paved the way for our new normal (or at least our current normal), there’s a plentiful supply of ambiguity in most organizations. That, combined with an ever-evolving digital landscape and constant changes in the workforce, creates a breeding ground for chaos and inaction. This can bring up duplication of efforts, loss of returns on critical investments, and a culture that’s resistant to organizational change.

Organizational ambiguity is frequently compounded in larger companies with several business units that operate independently. While that autonomy can empower teams and leave the door open for innovation, it can also create a network of distinct, overspecialized systems and processes. These disparities come to light when companies go through enterprise-wide transformation, and big organizational changes often result in pockets of resistance among stakeholder groups that can slow progress—or bring it to a screeching halt. 

The good news is that while ambiguity is common today, there are strategies and tactics that can mitigate the risk and even create opportunities for an organization to thrive. 

Be willing to ask difficult questions

One of the most undervalued steps to overcoming organizational ambiguity is to ask questions. At first glance, this may seem obvious and simple, but the practice is often overlooked. The saying “You don’t know what you don’t know” is as true now as it ever was, and gathering the right information is crucial to gaining clarity and making better, more informed decisions. It’s also important to ask questions that are outside the box. Often, the solution is a creative one that wasn’t part of the original scope or plan. 

Asking questions—often difficult ones—can be the catalyst that sparks momentum in a project and clears up ambiguity. It can lead to the discovery of critical connection points, key decision makers, and innovate ideas that clear the way for better and faster decision making, and ultimately, organizational clarity and growth. 

Cultivate a culture that supports innovation 

The pulse of an organization is found in its culture: the values and environment where transformation either thrives or fails. Many companies are hampered by a culture that doesn’t allow for the scale of change their leaders desire. Where there are large pockets of resistance and a weak change muscle, ambiguity creates friction. Leaders must work to promote a culture of innovation. When an organization embraces a growth mindset and has a strong change muscle, ambiguity can be seen as a welcome opportunity.

Here are a few ways to encourage leaders and employees to adopt a growth mindset and develop the organizational change muscle: 

  1. Talk about change and ambiguity transparently, not only highlighting the positives, but recognizing that change is hard and resistance is normal. Most employees just want to be heard; they’ll likely engage more when they feel understood. 
  2. Recognize failures or setbacks as an opportunity to grow. This will help employees feel comfortable asking questions and proposing new ideas. 
  3. Experiment with new approaches and new ways of working. Brainstorm as a team; then try out a solution and discuss the results to record lessons and continue to improve. 
  4. Admit that you don’t have all the answers. Reach out to experts for help and learn from them. Bring them in and collaborate. 
  5. Lead by example and demonstrate a growth mindset in your daily work. You don’t have to have the job title of a leader to be one. 

Identify the right sponsors and influencers

Make connections. Ambiguity often manifests because of missing links, a.k.a., people—not just people, but the right people, with the right level of influence and authority.

Don’t leave important decisions up in the air for extended periods; that creates unnecessary confusion and ambiguity. Instead, establish sponsorship and identify decision makers at the beginning of discussions—especially in the case of an enterprise change involving multiple stakeholders. One way to gain shared understanding is to guide your sponsors and decision makers through an intent-clarification exercise with those stakeholders.

Ensure everyone has a voice and agrees on the purpose, vision, and goals of the initiative. Then discuss these questions:

  1. What is it?
  2. Why are we doing it? 
  3. Why are we doing it now?
  4. What if we don’t do this?
  5. What is changing?

Once everyone’s on the same page, make sure sponsors and key influencers understand their roles and have a clear action plan for supporting the change. Employees will look to them as role models during the transition, so if the change isn’t perceived as important to the sponsor, workers won’t make the time and effort to embrace it.

Continue to set goals and build momentum

Set incremental goals. In almost any large-scale implementation, there’s an end goal and an ultimate measure of success, but usually there’s also an extended timeline. To gain momentum and maintain excitement, celebrate small wins along the way and think of creative ways to increase adoption and utilization.

One way to do this is by piloting programs with small groups. Test the plan with a small group and get participants’ feedback! This helps to get a feel for how the program will be received by the larger group. It can provide great ideas for improvement and help to identify any points of resistance or friction so you can start mitigating them early. Use that input to tailor the solution, change-management approach, and communications plan for optimal results from your target audience. 

Ask for feedback and use it to assess progress against your metrics at each step of the way as you continuously look for areas to improve. Feedback is one of the most valuable tools in working through ambiguity and striving toward your goals.

Uncover and address the sources of resistance

When so much effort has gone into creating practices specific to individual business units, expect resistance when the enterprise seeks alignment with an overall solution. Not all employees will want to transition from familiar and trusted processes. Resistance is often an indicator that more work remains in making the case for change. For some, the status quo is comfortable, and the benefits of adaptation just aren’t apparent. As you work toward the right approach for addressing resistance, understanding why it exists is half the battle. The most common causes of resistance are:

  1. Mistrust and lack of confidence
  2. Emotional responses
  3. Fear of failure
  4. Poor communication
  5. Unrealistic timelines

A thoughtful strategy and purposefully executed communication plan will help employees understand the necessity of change and the value it will bring. Comprehensive measures (supported by a trusted and experienced sponsor) to mitigate the root causes of resistance will help reduce its effects. It may be unrealistic to believe all resistance can be prevented before the effort commences, but keep this in mind: the lower the resistance is before, during, and after the change effort, the higher the chances for success.

Major changes bring forth ambiguity and uncertainty that can rock an organization and create turbulent business environments. However, with the right mindset, strong leadership, and a culture that allows employees to ask tough questions and fail forward quickly, ambiguity can foster powerful outcomes that propel organizations forward.

In a sense, ambiguity is a bit like mud: sure, it’s squishy at first, but with effort you can shape it into just about anything. In the space between intention and clarity, there’s room to improve, innovate, and iterate solutions for positive change. So when your organization faces complex problems, lean into the discomfort and look for those opportunities to thrive through the ambiguity.

About the Author

Michelle Crowe
Michelle is a Business Consultant at GP Strategies who brings meaningful strategies and solutions to companies undergoing a transformational change. She works with enterprise leaders and managers to help drive, support, and sustain a change to lead to successful adoption within the organization.
Carl Ramsey
Carl Ramsey is a certified project management professional (PMP) and retired senior military officer where he spent over 30 years leading troops and solving problems. He brings that drive and experience to GP Strategies as a senior business consultant with over 14 years collaborating with clients to solve their most wicked problems while ensuring their current practices produce the greatest business value.
Kelley Rowland

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