Unraveling the Secrets of Ambiguity

Prologue: Part III – Unraveling the Secrets of Ambiguity

Ambiguity emanates from duality, or shall we say, multiplicity, but is markedly different from the dualities of the unknown.

Ambiguity - a source of creativity?Ambiguity is the basis of continued reverence and research for mathematicians. Unlike business, where ambiguity may be actively avoided (although an incorrect position), mathematicians derive creativity and richness of dimensions from it. Ambiguity signifies multiple interpretations of a situation, a law, an act, or a statement. And ALL the interpretations ARE real.

Thus, unlike x2=4 that has two possible answers for unknown ‘x’, in ambiguity, two correct answers are possible ONLY in two different frames of reference. William Bayer defines ambiguity as something involving “a single situation or idea perceived in two self-consistent but mutually incompatible frames of reference.” We encounter ambiguities routinely, automatically parsed and easily understood - e.g. ‘worker’ means a blue collared employee in the definition of a legal act; however, ‘worker’ could mean any employee when used loosely in the context of an organization. Both definitions are correct but in two very different frames of reference.

Ambiguity for poets is a source that enriches reader’s appreciation. It creates layers of expression that gives readers the freedom of making their own interpretations. William Empson, the 20th century influential Cambridge scholar, who authored ‘The 7 Types of Ambiguities” argued, that ‘overlap of meanings’ or ambiguity in the use of a word enriches poetry than denuding it of its elegance. While the first six types are more relevant to arts, ambiguity 7 - “Tension, too big to tame,” is applicable to organizations and leadership and is discussed later.

Ambiguity is a source of enrichment in music too. Ambiguity in notes help create an aura of suspense. Like e.g., notes A and C are common to Fmajor and Aminor chords (chords have at least 3 notes); these two have been sensuously crafted in the starting notes of a particular symphony, keeping the listeners guessing whether the musical will move into the F-scale or the Am scale. We are talking of Gustav Mahler’s masterpiece, 5th Symphony, and the ambiguity gets resolved to Fmajor. (For deeper understanding listen to Leonard Bernstein’s lectures at Harvard).

Three examples - in mathematics, in poetry, and in music, where ambiguity is a source of pure creativity.

Ambiguity in Business.

Ambiguity in business most commonly arises out of poor communication, either unclear or purposely obfuscated. Ambiguity due to ambivalence or lack of decision making from senior leadership causes disillusionment and confusion amongst the ranks as directions are not clear. Ambiguity in customer needs either due to open customer requirements or due to lack of expertise in capturing the nuances of the requirements is another area which could stretch projects beyond budgets and timelines and cause deep damage. Ambiguity in market direction especially when two technologies are sparring for supremacy can be lethal if the organization chooses a technology which over time loses steam and is wiped out. There are many situations where ambiguity can thrive in an organization, but unlike uncertainty which cannot be avoided, ambiguity can be.

  • Tolerating ambiguity improves organizational culture. Organizational culture that allows leaders to make mistakes and encourages them to give firm directions and make timely decisions knowing well some of these decisions may need revisions in future, are organizations where ambiguity is usually not feared and used advantageously. When ambiguous situations do arise, such organizations limit their exposure and refine decisions at key milestones for any course correction. Thus, organization culture or applying limits to potential exposure caused by ambiguity are two strong methods to combat its ill-effects. Ambiguity tolerance is also a measure of an organization’s capability to handle diversity of thoughts and opinions.

  • Managing ambiguity implies a leader with strong empathy, shows my ongoing research. While this may sound like a paradox, it is an obvious corollary. Leaders who cannot handle ambiguity and prefer very clear-cut upward or downward communications are innately uncomfortable in dealing with multiple and ambiguous frames. This can occur when the leader is

    • himself playing multiple personas that don’t necessarily get resolved.

    • running large swathes of disparate businesses with different realities.

    • dealing with the dictates of the starkly different groups – e.g. a small ‘boundary-less’ innovation group versus a large disciplined production group.

    • dealing with groups with conflicting and contradicting business measures.

    • massively self-centered.

    Ability to handle ambiguity is a critical survival skill for leaders who are adept in managing VUUA business environments.

  • Employing ambiguity to instil hope. Empson’s ambiguity number 7 i.e. ‘tension too big to tame’, is used by leaders to inspire their forces to rally out of deeply troubled times or to be prepared for sharp shifts in environment. Unlike Mahler’s 5th Symphony where the ambiguity of sonata bars get resolved, Empson’s ambiguity 7 relies upon tension created by opposing words, which never gets resolved. It is like watching a dual between two Roman gladiators. One part wants to know who wins, but the saner part does not; because it knows that the winner in his final act will pierce the kneeling loser’s heart with his sword. This non-resolution of the opposites is key in the message. Two such examples are given below.

    “It's the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs. The hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores. The hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta. The hope of a mill worker's son who dares to defy the odds. The hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him too. Hope! Hope in the face of difficulty! Hope in the face of uncertainty! The audacity of hope!” The 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address by President Obama.

    “You always think that there’s something left that you want to achieve in your life. Or maybe a place you want to see or a loved one you want to hug. Then you get up, shoulder your rifle, and realize, that there’ll always be something that you haven't done. And the time now, is as good any other moment in your life, to breathe your last.” A note from a frontline peacekeeping soldier at Kosovo to his girlfriend.

    Ambiguity in the communication can be used to lift sagging spirits and forlorn faces. In inspiring speeches, ambiguity need not be resolved, as leaders use this modus to allow themselves the freedom of choice in navigating into their chosen frame of reference. Leadership implies hope and during unknown and uncertain times, ambiguity can be a strong strength-finder.

Reconciling between Uncertainty, Unknown and Ambiguity.

  • Uncertainty is only the symptom while the cause is the Unknown.

  • Unknown may have two or more potential answers but only ONE of them is correct. In the example x2=4, x can be either +2 OR -2.

  • Ambiguity has two (or more) meanings. BOTH of them are correct - but only in two mutually independent frames of reference e.g. ‘worker’ has different meanings in legal AND organizational contexts. Ambiguity need not always be resolved and leaders must learn to both live comfortably with it as well as employ it judiciously.

(My computing friends would easily spot the allusion to digital computing – ‘Unknown’ follows the OR logic, ‘Ambiguity’ the AND logic, while ‘Uncertainty’ is a digital TRISTATE.)

Combining Uncertainty, Unknown and Ambiguity, one final time:

  • Unknown is represented on the space axis. Space signifies strength and unknown is a sector usually with least strength. Hence taking a series of very short term objectives and calibrating continuously is critical.

  • Unknown gives rise to uncertainty, which is represented on the time axis. Time signifies opportunity and in uncertain times spotting clear opportunities is difficult. Use the bell curve with trifurcation – with x-axis representing time (6 or 9 or 12 months) and the curve split into 15%, 70%,15% - the percentage of objectives to be achieved in first, 2-5 and the last months.

  • Ambiguity is represented on action axis. Action signifies lifecycle and the only three actions possible are add, amend or delete. When actions are fluid across the three, without clarity, ambiguity persists. Ambiguity is like a knife – it can heal or kill. It needs to be used wisely.


The paragraph above is an abridged blurb from the three parts of this article. Current global situation exposes all of us to the severity of VUUA. As we slowly return to picking up the pieces from where we had left in a hurry, each organisation will find that their needs and priorities have changed. For some it will be cash, for others it could be restarting production or rebuilding the supply chain, and for yet others it could be their customers or their people. The time today is to evaluate the cascading uncertainty arising out of the Covid-19 situation and their likely risks and resolutions. Till the virus lies in the precinct of the unknown, the paths being experimented would be in multiples. Till then, ambiguity will persist, both in the minds of the people as well as businesses and governments. What was taken for granted may be non-existent, when we will resume our lives likely in a labored slow motion. Till then the near-term objective will be survival. If that is achieved the battle can be resolutely fought and eventually won.

‘Unraveling the Secrets of Ambiguity’ Based on the Space-Time-Action (STA) Strategy Triangle from the book, Achieving Successful Business Outcomes - Driving High Performance & Effective Transformations in a Continuously Evolving Business Environment by Alok K Sinha, Taylor & Francis, Routledge Publishers, NY & London, March 2020.