I am very proud of my daughter, Sarah. She has made a name for herself in the very male-dominated world of historic building restoration and ornamental plastering. She uses all her skills as a sculptress and has developed a keen eye for the health of historic buildings. I was walking with her recently through the centre of Newbury, an old market town in Berkshire, UK, that boasts a fairly modern shopping centre. And she began to illustrate for me how ambiguity works in a VUCA world. (‘VUCA’ stands for an environment defined by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.)
So when Sarah suddenly objected at the sight of this wall (pictured above) it got my attention. What was wrong with it? To my untrained eye, someone had been responsible for preserving this fine building by re-pointing the wall. That was a good thing, right?
Well, no. Sarah pointed out that the traditional material to bind bricks was lime. Concrete, though less perishable, does not absorb water.
I still didn’t get it. Not absorbing water is a good thing, right?
Again I stood to be corrected. A building such as this, Sarah explained, is a living system. When it rains, where will the water go? It will seep into the most porous and also the most precious part of the structure, the timbers. It will stay there and eventually rot away the wood. In about ten years time, these ancient timbers will be rotting and need replacing. And they are irreplaceable.
This illustrated a couple of things for me about ambiguity:
- It’s often experience and skill that offers us the only way of recognising ambiguity in our work. I thought the repair was a good, responsible job; my daughter knew it was a restoration crime.
- The frame of reference we bring to the world matters. In this case, do we think of a building as an inert, static structure or as a living system, a system that needs to flex and breathe? Our frame of reference is how we see reality, how the world appears to us.
In the world of leading change, we make assumptions about people and their behaviour. For example, someone reacts with surprising hostility towards the changes we are trying to make. We can make the assumption that they are a trouble-maker, they dislike us, or that they are just a stubborn reactionary.
We need to look closer. My experience draws me towards that person, towards that conflict; it triggers exploratory, compassionate questions. And my frame of reference is that very few people are sociopaths, so there is probably another reason why this person appears unreasonable.
I look deeper, and I find that this person is going through a domestic trauma and that the only stability in their life right now seems to be their workplace. And I’m about to take away that last refuge of stability.
Suddenly their reaction begins to make sense. Now I can view them very differently. I can begin to work positively with that person.
Ambiguity in this VUCA world is all around us. The problem is, by definition, we don’t see it.
The more we grow in experience and what worldview we bring to our work, the more we challenge our own initial assumptions, the more we are likely to uncover and recognise important ambiguity.