Embrace ambiguity and forge our quantum future

Ambiguity can incite anxiety. Outcomes are unpredictable, and the path ahead is unclear. But it also means possibility — and possibility brings opportunity…

If there is one talent that will define the leaders of the next couple of decades, it will be the ability to embrace ambiguity. Of the VUCA foursome, ambiguity is the bright spark of hope at the end of a difficult journey. Why? Because it is a problem and a solution all wrapped up in one idea.

Ambiguity isn’t a digital idea — Martin has already debunked that one — but is better thought of as a quantum one. Think of the classic quantum physics thought experiment: Schrödinger’s Cat. The cat in the box is in an ambiguous state. It is neither alive nor dead, and it is only by opening the box that that ambiguity is collapses into fixed reality.

While the thought experiment is often described as a paradox, because living things cannot actually be in such an ambiguous condition, subatomic particles certainly can be. And, as we’re discovering, so too can societies and the systems that support them.

Change, my dear, and not a moment too soon

Ambiguity implies change, but unpredictable change. The line of cause and effect is not clear (often because of the volatility of the systems, or the chaotic outcomes). But unpredictable does not mean it is fixed. If anything, it implies the reverse, that you can influence the outcome.

And that’s exciting.

Ambiguity, as an idea, carries with it the promise of potential. Our digital future is far from set, and there is plenty of scope for new ideas to move it in a different direction. Our politics are proving more uncertain that the last 20th century’s embrace of centrism predicted. As we make our way through the third decade of the 21st century, our politics remains more unpredictable than ever. Ireland has just had a shock, as Sinn Féin holds the balance of power for the first time in its history. That’s changed the political balance that has endured for a century.

We’re living in an age where it seems that there is more than one possible outcome in most aspects of our lives — and our own actions can still have an influence on that.

But how?

Meet ambiguity with ambiguity

In ambiguous times, you must yourself be ambiguous. (How very zen…)

When outcomes are not predictable, when you are beset with unknown unknowns, you must keep yourself open to new possibilities. In ambiguous times, fear the person who says “I have no doubt…”. Why? Because doubt is very often a marker of intelligence — or, at least, an intelligent understanding of a situation.

Doubting ourselves allows us to rationally open ourselves to other possibilities. And when you’re open to them, change is easier to implement when its need becomes apparent.

Flexibility and adaptability are our watchwords here. The “waterfall” approach of plan, execute and deliver is a recipe for disaster when the context you’ll be delivering into is changing in unpredictable ways. Finding ways to iterate towards your goals, of being experimental in your approach, and flexibility in your planning, is a path to survival.

A fixed mindset is not.

Opportunity from ambiguity

In ambiguity there is possibility. An era of predictability is an era of ruthless competition, because everybody knows where they are going. And so, it becomes a race to get there fastest — or cheapest. Ambiguity allows for a shifting range of solutions, and opens up the possibility of trying out innovative approaches.

Admit it. There’s a seductive charm to escaping the cold, dead hand of “best practice”, and coming up with creative solutions to business problems.

We certainly live in ambiguous times. The climate is changing, but we don’t know how much. The world’s political climate is changing, but we don’t know how far it will go.

At the time of writing, for example, America remains in an ambiguous position. Will it pursue a more authoritarian future, under the incumbent Republican president? Or will it shift backwards towards more conventional democratic norms under a challenger — the identity of whom remains ambiguous, too.

Anxiety’s gift

The sense of anxiety, of being unsettled, that is a hallmark of an ambiguous time is something to welcome, not fear. That anxiety tells us that things need to change, and gives us the impetus to do something about it:

The kind of anxiety I’m describing is the north star guiding ships onward. At least it can be, when the worry itself is reframed and harnessed toward the common good. Because what is it, other than an awareness of consequence and connection? What is it, other than the recognition that things should be different? There is no yearning for a better world when there are no guiding stars. They are a necessary precondition for meaningful change.

To return to the idea that ambiguity is essentially quantum, the probability waveforms that define quantum physics are collapsed by examination. You change — and define — the state that emerges by the process of investigation. Ambiguous times present us with the same opportunity. By probing the possibilities opened up by the ambiguity, we help define what emerges.

Probe, and learn. And then probe again.

Embrace ambiguity — and it will embrace you.

Photo by Gilbert Timothy on Unsplash