Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 10;   March 16, 2022:

Resolving Ambiguity

by

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! .

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

A Julius Caesar coinOn Organizational Coups d'Etat
If your boss is truly incompetent, or maybe even evil, organizing a coup d'etat might have crossed your mind. In most cases, it's wise to let it cross on through, all the way. Think of alternative ways out.
Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (Democrat of Wisconsin)Confronting the Workplace Bully: II
When bullied, one option is to fight back, but many don't, because they fear the consequences. Confrontation is a better choice than many believe — if you know what you're doing.
John C. Calhoun (1782-1850), seventh Vice President of the United StatesImpasses in Group Decision Making: I
Groups sometimes find that although they cannot agree on the issue at hand in its entirety, they can agree on some parts of it. Yet, they remain stuck, unable to reach a narrow agreement before moving on to the more thorny areas. Why does this happen?
The late Cameron Todd Willingham, wrongfully executed in Texas in 2004 for the murder of his daughtersAnecdotes and Refutations
In debate and argumentation, anecdotes are useful. They illustrate. They make things concrete. But they aren't proof of anything. Using anecdotes as proofs leads to much trouble and wasted time.
U.S. President Lyndon Johnson giving Senator Richard Russell the "treatment" in the White House Cabinet Room on December 17, 1963Newly Virtual Politics: Choices
Pandemic or not, workplace politics marches on, though politics might take slightly different forms in a pandemic. Those different forms make new choices available, and render some formerly effective choices ineffective.

See also Conflict Management and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Bottom: Aerial view of the Forth Bridge, Edinburgh, Scotland. Top: Inside the Forth Rail Bridge, from a ScotRail 158 on August 22, 1999.Coming June 1: Mental Accounting and Technical Debt
In many organizations, technical debt has resisted efforts to control it. We've made important technical advances, but full control might require applying some results of the behavioral economics community, including a concept they call mental accounting. Available here and by RSS on June 1.
A goose and goslingsAnd on June 8: Flexible Queue Management
In meetings of 5-30 participants, managing the queue of contributors can be challenging. A strict first-in-first-out order can cause confusion and waste of time if important contributions are delayed. Some meetings need more flexible queue management. Available here and by RSS on June 8.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.