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The Intentional Organisation - Issue #9 - Focusing on Ambiguity
1. Ambiguity and Organisational Masochisms
"Ability to navigate ambiguity". An expression we see listed very often among the critical skills for many vacancies and positions. Especially in organisations that have experimented matrix models, ambiguity seems to be the norm today. For many of my colleagues, the argument is that this is a simple reflection of the VUCA environment.
I tend to disagree. Inside a company, ambiguity is the result of lousy organisation design.
Let's see a couple of cases of how ambiguity unfolds for employees in an organisation.
Ambiguity in Goals. This is a pervasive element, which happens both in the context where formal goal settings involve more than one manager (a typical example is the dual reporting lines in matrix organisations). The system is often designed not to force collaboration on goal setting, which result in complications for the incumbent to focus, especially in cases of diverging goals.
Ambiguity in Performance Evaluations. Sometimes the issue is not with the goal setting, but with the evaluation of performance, both in formal and informal processes. Different people might be focusing on other elements in their assessments. This happens a lot in organisations that have a traditional system that includes the managers' manager in the evaluation process. If the alignment between the two is not perfect, this often results in diverging evaluations for the employee.
Ambiguity in Development. This is an area that often appears in many organisations and is about development priorities for the individual employee. Sometimes it is due to the focus of different managers, sometimes even in the added stresses developed from HR. The result is messages that are not consistent for the individual, often joined with a lack of transparency about the real objectives of the different development opportunities offered.
Ambiguity in Deployment. This often happens when an individual is assigned to a new role (predominantly in projects) that spans the traditional siloed hierarchy of the organisation. Both large and small projects often end up having Steering Committees with representatives from different functions, and a PMO role that should drive the entire project. However, when governance is not appropriately designed, projects can become a nest of ambiguity for the people that work in them.
Ambiguity in Change. This is a specific case that I have seen often happening when people are part of a project and assigned roles labelled as Change Champions or similar. The idea is that these roles, embedded in the organisation, should act as multiplayer of the change effort. I've already argued that managers should be the one driving change because way too often, this parallel organisation produces a new source of ambiguity in the form of resistance to change.
There are probably more cases in the experience of many. In any case, I can indeed point out that each of these is linked to poor organisation design choices often because we concentrate on the individual task or specific process, without evaluations the ripple effects of these choices.
Ambiguity in organisations is mostly a self-inflicted pain due to bad design practices.
There's nothing wrong in looking for skills around the navigation of ambiguity. But we should use these to manage the external forces of the environment, not by replicating a VUCA world internally. The opposite is true: we need to focus on simplicity. By intentionally designing organisations where all that can be managed internally is crystal clear, we can then have an advantage in adapting towards the external environment.
So, consider these questions whenever you are touching a process that affects the performance of individuals in your organisation, or are changing the structure internally:
Will this create chances of ambiguity?
Do we have alternative design options?
Can we simplify the design?
If not, what other actions can we take to diminish the ambiguity?
Discuss this with your team, and check what the level of perceived ambiguity within the organisation is. See significantly how much this impacts productive employees. You will probably be surprised.
Organisation Design possesses all the tools to face internal ambiguity. Ultimately, it boils down to another instance of where we decide not to decide when not removing this obstacle.
2. My Latest Posts
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3. Reading Suggestions
With Covid-19 looming many sectors into recessions, a lot of focus is being put in automation as a way to reduce even more the need for human workforce. Is this really. consolidating trend? #FutureofWork
A McKinsey Survey looks at the key barriers for the creation of true inclusion in the workplace, seen from different perspectives and equality constituencies. What is needed for real Belonging? #Diversity
A truly interesting study by the University of Sant Gallen, looks at suggesting a framework to support People Analytics endeavors in organisation, addressing key ethical concerns linked to employee surveillance and control. A must read #FutureofWork
4. The (un) Intentional Organisation 😁
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