Thriving in Ambiguity


Lauren Pollak

Katherine Wakid

Thriving in Ambiguity

Some organizations seem to thrive in highly ambiguous environments. So what separates them from everyone else, and what can we learn from folks who routinely transform uncertainty into winning products and services? In a new article for Rotman Magazine, Jump’s Lauren Pollak and Katherine Wakid look for the answers.

Originally Published in Rotman Magazine, September 2010

One of our colleagues recently went on a family camping trip to an isolated area along the Alabama-Florida border. The family had never been camping before, and the small children were extremely excited about the adventure that lay ahead. But when they arrived at the campsite, they realized that they had no instructions for building their brand new tent.

As the kids began to pull the many bits and pieces out of the tent’s carrying case, the magnitude of the problem became clear: 50 puzzle pieces, two small children, no instructions, and half of the poles looked identical. One by one, our colleague and her husband started trying to fit pieces together to build the tent frame. As the sun began to set, trial and error paid off: the bag of parts was finally a tent – and not a moment too soon. Just as they sat down to admire their handiwork, the sky opened and the family ducked into the warm, dry tent.

As daunting as this task had seemed at the outset, the family’s collective problem-solving abilities were enough to figure it out. Though lacking instructions, even the kids knew what a tent should look like, and they had all the parts they needed. In other words, the goal was well understood, and all the key variables were readily accessible. Success was simply a matter of connecting the goal to the variables. Many complex problems that today’s leaders face – from supply chain optimization to ingredient sourcing – are a lot like assembling a tent without instructions. No matter how complex the challenge, all the variables and parameters are known, and the desired outcomes are clear.

Another category of complex problems has nothing in common with raising a tent. These problems are a lot more like Lewis and Clark trying to find a path to the Pacific Ocean: they didn’t know how far they were going, which path to take, what they would need along the way, or where they would eventually find themselves. In sum, the parameters were unclear; the variables were incomplete, distorted or unknown; and past experience offered little guidance.

Most organizations are pretty good at solving ‘tent problems’. Specialized departments, internal experts and processes like Six Sigma help to systematically break down and solve even the most challenging tent problem. Lewis and Clark problems, on the other hand, can’t be solved by analysis alone. That’s because they’re ambiguous, ill-defined and more often than not, the question being asked may change mid-course. Often, the same systems that help companies solve tent problems can prevent them from solving more ambiguous problems. Instead, these problems require intuition and emergent thinking to go beyond what is currently known and reveal something new. As often as they require rigorous analytics, ambiguous problems require leaps of faith.

Unfortunately for most organizations, Lewis and Clark problems are exactly the types of challenges they face when they’re trying to enter new markets, develop new businesses and appeal to new customers. In today’s fast-changing marketplace, effectively solving ambiguous problems is a crucial challenge, because these problems are often the source of significant organic growth. In this article we will describe the type of organization that thrives in such an environment: the exploratory organization.

Characteristics of the Exploratory Organization
There is a special class of organization that is uniquely suited to dealing with ambiguous problems. We call them Exploratory Organizations, and while they come in all shapes and sizes, all are comfortable working toward ill-defined objectives and objectives that change over time. Such organizations include Google, Second City Improv, Cirque de Soleil, Pixar, and our own firm, Jump Associates.

The good news is that you don’t have to overhaul your entire organization to benefit from elements of the exploratory organization. In fact, the ability to tackle ambiguous problems is really only crucial for those responsible for future growth. Though the leaders responsible for this audacious task carry a variety of titles – senior vice president of new business development, chief strategy officer, chief marketing officer or division president – all of them routinely deal with ambiguous problems surrounding the future of their business.

By infusing their teams with some of the best practices of organizations that thrive in ambiguity, leaders can dramatically increase their success at solving their most pressing challenges – the kinds of issues you don’t really want to face but can’t afford to ignore.

Leave a Reply

If you would like to speak with someone at Jump about a story or event you’re working on, contact Anna Zhi or call (650) 373-7229.


Sign up to receive periodic newsletters filled with our latest thinking to help you grow your business.


Wired to Care

For more than a decade, we've worked closely with some of the world's most admired companies. Now, we're ready to share what we've learned about the critical connection between empathy and growth in Jump's first book Wired to Care. Read More