Ambiguity is a communication issue and a principle cause of difficulty in managing and performing projects. For example, in a large business process improvement project a lack of clarity regarding the role of the business unit's staff was the cause of unnecessary conflict. Defining the roles of the PMO, business analysts performers from IT, training and finance regarding decision making, responsibility for specific tasks, including sign-offs, and turn-around time, minimized the conflicts and generally improved productivity by eliminating wasted efforts and promoting team work with healthy, pleasant, relationships.

Ambiguity is the absence of information, inexactness, imprecision, being open to more than one interpretation, indistinct, or "fuzzy." Project management uses an analytical approach to define the projects so that ambiguity is minimized.

The VUCA Shield

Ambiguity is one of the four parts of VUCA - Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. The more these four are active in a project, the more difficult it is to perform and succeed in meeting that project's objectives. For example, frequent, uncontrolled change will result in deviations from the plan. Deviations from the plan lead to uncertainty. Uncertainty may lead to anxiety which drives snap decisions and reactive behavior.

The nature of the project environment and of the product or project outcome dictate the level of complexity. Complexity increases uncertainty because it makes determining the impact of a change difficult or impossible. Ambiguity may contribute to the perception of complexity. Ambiguity increases uncertainty. Ambiguity results in discomfort and discomfort increases the likelihood of conflict and poor productivity.

VUCA is a fact of life. The project manager is responsible for putting up a VUCA Shield to protect the project from unnecessary volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

The VUCA Shield is good project management processes that unambiguously define objectives, specs, requirements, as well as the work to be done, the roles and responsibilities, processes, policies and anything else that is needed to do the work or can impact the project. The shield moderates the flow and impact of changes, manages expectations, plans and promotes effective designs, assures clear, unambiguous communication.

Overcoming Ambiguity

In the is article we focus on overcoming ambiguity. Among the VUCA factors, ambiguity is the most immediately actionable and influences the other three.

To overcome ambiguity, first understand it and its causes. Then apply the appropriate practices to address the causes; eliminating them, if possible, or reducing the probability of their occurrence and moderating their impact.

Ambiguity is vagueness. it is an inability to have a clear understanding of a situation or concept. To overcome it, apply effective communication skills to address these causes of ambiguity:

  • Newness - a lack of experience with a situation that makes predicting outcomes and responses difficult or impossible. Novelty is directly caused by volatility, particularly, staff changes or highly volatile situations.

  • Complexity - a large number of cues, interactions and information to be considered.

  • Complexity makes defining the whole and predicting outcomes difficult, if not impossible.

  • Unreliable information - data and interpretations that are inaccurate, incomplete, contradictory

  • Lack of definition and clarity - In projects define the following to avoid ambiguity
    • Goals, objectives, and values and how they will be measured
    • Expectations - what, by when, for how much, how
    • Requirements - specific and concrete statements of features, functions and performance
    • Policies, processes, procedures
    • Roles and responsibilities, relationships, authority and hierarchy
    • Scope
    • Issues and problems

  • Poor processes and views - particularly communication, decision making and problem solving, and cause and effect, systems and process thinking

  • Recognizing these causes, and the likelihood that they can all be present, apply remedies:
  • If newness or complexity are causes, train to give the staff a greater sense of what they can expect and prepare the staff for operating in an ambiguous situation. If the ambiguity caused by newness and complexity cannot be removed, then the unambiguous clarity that there will be ambiguity prepares the staff. They will not be surprised by it or think that something is wrong when they confront it. They will adapt and increase clarity.

  • When information is unreliable, the remedy is to acknowledge it, spend the time and effort to improve the information and/or to be ready to make assumptions in the absence of reliable information and manage the consequences of making decisions in this way.

  • When there is a lack of definition and clarity, act to define and clarify. Adapt PM practices to your situation. Document understandings. Don't over or under formalize. the larger and more complex the project team, the more the need for structured written communication.

  • When poor process is at the root of ambiguity make sure stakeholders are aware of the basic tenets of effective communication, systems and process view, cause and effect analysis and decision making and problem solving. High ambiguity is evidenced by arguments, unnecessary stress, unmet expectations and constant uncontrolled change. When these symptoms are there, look to your processes and your way of thinking to remove their causes.

  • Ambiguity Tolerance


    Realize that the remedies are not necessarily going to eliminate ambiguity. The shield is imperfect. Cultivate ambiguity tolerance - the ability to thrive in ambiguous situations.

    The ambiguity intolerant person experiences ambiguity as stressful, anxiety producing threatening and confusing. Ambiguous situations are viewed as something to avoid. Performance in ambiguous situations is difficult and degraded.

    With ambiguity tolerance, one recognizes and analyzes an ambiguous event, accepting its complexity and the feelings of discomfort that may come with uncertainty and then to identify alternatives and adapt. The person with higher tolerance for ambiguity is comfortable in the realm of risk and probabilities. The person with lower ambiguity tolerance seeks certainty, often by buying into often unfounded stereotypes concrete ideas, predictions and beliefs.

    Minimize Ambiguity and Maximize Ambiguity Tolerance


    Ambiguity and the imprecision, lack of discipline, volatility, uncertainty and complexity that give rise to it, are facts of life. Cultivate ambiguity tolerance and apply it in your work and life. Make your VUCA Shield as impenetrable as possible. Accept that will not be perfect.

    Cultivate the mindfulness, emotional and social intelligence needed to recognize ambiguity tolerance in yourself and others - is anxiety rising, is there delusion, with promises of certainty ("They've said it will be done on time and therefor it will.") or stereotypes ("clients do not accept uncertainty, so we need to lock in an accurate estimate and stick to it no matter what.")

    Mindful of the tendency to feel uncomfortable with ambiguity, learn to experience the feelings rather than react to them with denial and withdrawal. Assess the situation, remove as much ambiguity as possible, adapt, experiment and perform. Continuously remove ambiguity.

    Questions or comments? Feel free to share them below!

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    ABOUT THE AUTHOR: George Pitagorsky, PMP, integrates core disciplines and applies mindfulness meditation and people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. George authored Managing Expectations: A Mindful Approach to Achieving Success, The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict in Projects and PM Foundation. He is a senior teacher at the NY Insight Meditation Center.

    Online 3/30/2018
    Updated on: