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Volume 22, Issue 10;   March 16, 2022: Resolving Ambiguity

Resolving Ambiguity

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Ambiguity is anathema to success in collaborations. It causes errors and rework, extending time-to-market. When we interpret information, we often choose the first interpretation we find, never recognizing that others are possible. That leads to failure.
"My Wife and My Mother-in-Law", a famous optical illusion

"My Wife and My Mother-in-Law", a famous optical illusion, appears in Puck, 78:2018 (1915 Nov. 6), p. 11. This optical illusion illustrates a visual ambiguity (as do many others). It reminds us that ambiguity in any context can be the result of how our own perceptual apparatus works, or even what state it is in. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Ambiguity is a delightful ingredient of poetry, art, and Life. But in the context of complicated technical collaborations, ambiguity can be an expensive hindrance. One could be forgiven for speculating that a long stretch of the road to failure is paved with ambiguity. Although success can depend on knowing how to recognize ambiguity, recognition is only a first step. We need to know how to resolve ambiguity, how to avoid it, and how to work with it when we can't resolve it or avoid it.

Distinguishing ambiguity and uncertainty

One commonOne could be forgiven for speculating
that a long stretch of the road to
failure is paved with ambiguity
problem that arises in the context of dealing with ambiguity is confusion between ambiguity and uncertainty. A statement, a behavior, or a situation is ambiguous if it's consistent with two or more different interpretations or meanings. Uncertainty, on the other hand, is a situational condition that holds when aspects of that situation are unknown.

When we have available multiple possible interpretations of a swatch of information, then we're dealing with ambiguity. For example, if the work we require involves two different but similar technologies, A and B, we might know whether we should seek a specialist in A who is also conversant in B, or a specialist in B who is also conversant in A. In a case like that, we're dealing with ambiguity.

When we don't know what might occur, or how a situation might evolve, we're dealing with uncertainty. For example, if we need to hire a specialist to complete part of our project, but we don't know when we'll have approval for the necessary budgetary variance, we're dealing with uncertainty.

Confusion between uncertainty and ambiguity can arise when it's possible to assess probabilities of being correct for the various interpretations of ambiguous information. If we do that, then we're treating the different interpretations as if they were uncertainties. The risk here is that we might not actually have all interpretations in hand. So even though the assessed probabilities of all known interpretations sum to 100%, it's possible that another interpretation that we had never considered might turn out to be correct. Treating ambiguity as if it were uncertainty can then be an expensive error.

Kinds of ambiguity

The choice of effective tactics for resolving ambiguity depends on the nature of the ambiguity. Broadly speaking, there are two common types.

Exclusive ambiguity
In exclusive ambiguity, two or more interpretations differ because they are mutually exclusive in at least one respect. That is, although each interpretation is possible, ultimately only one can be valid. For example, consider a policy pronouncement defining the sales responsibilities for the components of the sales department of a company called FlowerCity. Suppose the statement reads, "Group A handles all sales of the Marigold product line, and Group B handles all sales of the Petunia product line." The statement is ambiguous relative to sales of product packages including combinations of Marigold and Petunia products. Either Group A or Group B will be responsible, but the policy statement is ambiguous with respect to this issue. The possible interpretations are exclusive of each other.
Contradictory ambiguity
In contradictory ambiguity, two or more interpretations differ in that one or both include elements that the other does not. Nevertheless, both interpretations could ultimately be valid. For example, when Nation A marshals military forces along its border with Nation B, the intelligence forces of Nation B might not be able to determine whether this deployment is offensive or defensive. When they observe that A's deployment includes missiles that have a range over 200 miles, they conclude that the deployment is offensive. But when they observe large inventories of anti-tank mines, they conclude that the deployment is mainly defensive. Ultimately, both interpretations are of course possible. Nation A might be preparing for both offensive and defensive strategies.

Choosing an ambiguity resolution strategy

Ambiguities sometimes resolve themselves as events unfold. For example, FlowerCity might discontinue combination sales. But resolving ambiguity intentionally often requires a proactive search for additional information — or some means of creating it. For example, an exclusive ambiguity might resolve upon emergence of information that rules out one of the possible interpretations. In our FlowerCity example, we might allocate all combination products to one sales department. For the international border clash example, we might task our intelligence gathering teams to search for more indicators of offensive or defensive weapons deployments, whichever seems most likely to produce clarifying results.

Last words

If an ambiguity isn't resolved, either by circumstances or intention, we must find ways to press forward with the ambiguity unresolved. In that circumstance, resilience strategies are most valuable, because they're more likely to survive resolution of the ambiguity in whatever way it resolves. Go to top Top  Next issue: Premortems  Next Issue

How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble StartsProjects never go quite as planned. We expect that, but we don't expect disaster. How can we get better at spotting disaster when there's still time to prevent it? How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts is filled with tips for executives, senior managers, managers of project managers, and sponsors of projects in project-oriented organizations. It helps readers learn the subtle cues that indicate that a project is at risk for wreckage in time to do something about it. It's an ebook, but it's about 15% larger than "Who Moved My Cheese?" Just . Order Now! .

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