Ambiguity is the possibility of having no good answer for a problem — or having multiple, equally defensible answers. In situations characterized by ambiguity, executives need a clear sense of their values to move forward.
Consider nuclear energy: Many thoughtful people think it should be in the portfolio of tools to counter global warming. Other, equally thoughtful people disagree because fissile materials like uranium and plutonium pose a high risk to life. Both groups are right, and both are wrong.
Digital technologies will relentlessly continue to increase the high levels of ambiguity that executives must navigate. Aside from being broadly informed, how should an objective leader decide what to do when faced with such issues?
Unfortunately, aspiring leaders often respond by ignoring the challenge. But that’s not sustainable. Instead, they must respond to ambiguity by harboring healthy skepticism of the digital technologies they champion. Moreover, at the individual level, they must develop values that will lead to better decisions, and, at the organizational level, they must institutionalize those values.
It’s these values that will guide leaders in the absence of right answers or the presence of many equally valid ones. Leaders will know when to proverbially “fall on their sword” and make decisions based on principle.
Digital Technologies Are Exacerbating Ambiguity
I’ve introduced principles in previous columns about the ways digital technologies can exacerbate ambiguity: first, the probability that people working together these days are from different companies and different cultures, and second, the rise of more thought-driven work, requiring leaders to unleash employee creativity to inspire their contributions.
Two other distinguishing characteristics of digital technologies also exacerbate ambiguity:
Digital technologies reduce — and in some cases even destroy — the value of the knowledge and skills of elite groups. This happens when certain work can be or is required to be automated. For instance, for three centuries it was only Londoners with excellent memories and spatial thinking abilities who could pass the grueling Knowledge exam and become taxi drivers. Unaided, they unerringly took passengers to obscure addresses by the shortest or fastest routes. Eight years before Uber entered London, GPS systems degraded this skill’s value; four years before Uber, smartphones destroyed it.
Digital technologies augment the capabilities of less skilled people, allowing them to undertake tasks they previously couldn’t. GPS devices and smartphones not only allowed average Londoners to navigate like taxi drivers but helped them outperform the taxis, too, by issuing warnings of upcoming congestion and road closures.
When these principles operate in parallel, as they do in the example of London cabs and the rise of GPS, they affect different groups, enabling us to believe economist Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” argument: New technologies create more jobs than they destroy.
But emerging digital technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) can delink these principles.
Organizations Face Urgent Challenges Around Worker Skills
Most executives don’t appreciate, let alone confront, the potentially dire consequences of emerging digital technologies. Here are three specific examples:
- De-skilling/automating without up-skilling: Some experts believe that mass-produced driverless vehicles will eliminate over 3 million American trucking jobs; others assert that that number is (highly) inflated. But these vehicles could certainly affect global sociopolitical stability in 15 years: They will eliminate a point of entry into the wage-earning class for tens of millions of minimally educated people who work as professional drivers in global population centers like Mumbai, Jakarta, and Cairo. Do executives have any obligation to act?
- Up-skilling without de-skilling: When drones survey pipelines in remote regions, they change the skills needed by those employed as surveyors, but they also sharply reduce the number of people needed. How should executives in extractive industries address this reality, which is abrogating the mutual benefit contract that gives their companies access to key raw materials?
- De-skilling without up-skilling knowledge work: Digitally enabled intellectual work that replaces physical work usually requires — as for medicine — many years of training. In 2016, IBM’s Watson diagnosed and prescribed treatment for two particularly challenging cases of cancer. As Watson’s repertoire expands, how should executives think about displaced doctors?
Such situations are ubiquitous, and fraught with ambiguity. There is no single, right answer in any of them, and every possible right answer has usually embedded within it the seeds of its own negation. The only thing we do know for sure is that we cannot stop the relentless spread of digital technologies, nor wish away their downsides.
So what should executives do?
The Need for ‘Techno-Supporting Skeptics’
I believe business managers forfeit any claim to leadership if, when focused on doing their assigned tasks with great agility, they leave to their bosses the issues of up-skilling, thought-driven distributed work, and debating the ethics embedded in the algorithms that de-skill. Time will only exacerbate the pressure: Research I am doing shows that executives around the world are reaching consequential positions sooner than ever before.
My recommendation, then, is that every executive adopt a three-pronged strategy for addressing the challenges that accompany today’s digital technologies.
Be a “techno-supporting skeptic.” I often ask executives, “Aside from purely human acts, name an aspect of your life that does not involve digital technology.” There aren’t many. Regardless of your job, you must understand the major trajectories of technology. They will not go away simply to please you. Simultaneously, you must take a jaundiced view of technology. This will better position you to understand its attendant ambiguities and complexities, and will force you to ask tough questions instead of mindlessly joining the chase after the next shiny tech bauble.
Flag ambiguities and enable others to do so. Studies of major disasters show that insiders usually had knowledge that could have productively reframed discussions but that they were ignored or even actively subverted. This happens because they drew attention to issues that were seemingly simple and turned them into ones that were not so clear-cut. Leaders who don’t create conditions for others to speak up are usually not judged positively by history. Aspiring leaders should also speak up themselves, to encourage others to do so.
Decide what merits falling on your own sword. In the absence of right answers or the presence of many equally valid ones, leaders must be clear about the values that will shape their decisions. At the very least, these values will provide guidance about where the leader wishes to go. At more extreme times, values will define situations when a leader must act on principle, regardless of the personal cost. In the absence of clear values, ambiguity regularly produces free-for-all descents into crises.
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Ambiguity Can Be Managed
Smart organizations are adapting quietly to our increasingly ambiguous and complex world. Flag officers with advanced degrees in subjects like history and political science are no longer rare in elite armed forces. Top-tier consultants now hire PhDs, MDs, and MFAs, instead of relying exclusively on MBAs with two years of work experience.
As never before, digital technologies require leaders to navigate social contracts among people, between institutions and people, and between governments and institutions. Ambiguities and complexities arise from these. The broader your understanding of the issues that affect (and are affected by) technology, the better equipped you will be to lead.