The Increasing Need for Learning through Ambiguity

Two different articles in the New York Times, 10/29/13 really demonstrate how technology increasingly adds to the complexity of policy decision making and requires the ability to deal with blurring, ambiguous situations for political discussions. One is the issue of teachers and principals watching students on the internet (Warily, Schools Watch Students On the Internet) and various social media sites for inappropriate, hazing behavior. Leaving school no longer provides separation from the impact of others. Where does responsibility for student behavior that begins in school and continues virtually throughout remaining day lie. The lines between school interaction, social, and private life are blurring and inter-penetrating.

The furor over the spying on allies including their personal communications is another example (Obama May Ban Spying on Heads of Allied States). Spying always occurred but connections were not 24/7 and virtually traceable. More blurring lines; who is an ally, when does that shift? In both cases rules and policies become less clear as the various spaces of the life-world increasingly connect and feedback and consequences interact across spaces. When acting in these interconnecting spaces how does one act ethically?  Learning through paradox and dialogue is a competency that increasingly needs development, not just for “leaders” but for everyone. The ultimate paradox is that at same time technical academic skills are needed to function in the world, so is the ability to think critically even as the parameters one is thinking critical about change. This is not a problem that can be solved by teaching to the test. 


Air War in Kosovo Seen as Precedent in Possible Response to Syria Chemical Attack –

Air War in Kosovo Seen as Precedent in Possible Response to Syria Chemical Attack –

The article in Saturday’s NY Times is a classic example of how strategic discussions unfold as discussed in Gavitte & Rivikin’s 2005 Harvard Business Review article “How Strategists Really Think: Tapping the Power of Analogy”—not only in business, but in terms of international interventions as well. Not discussed in the NY Times article is the critical use of mapping the analogy being used–What is similar, and more important, what is not similar or is critically different between the new situation? Gavitte & Rivikin point out that the tendency for advocates is to naturally focus on the similarities.

Once the mapping is complete, what is equally important is:

  • Assessing what are the critical unknowns, what is being assumed, vs. what is known.
  • Considering the critical unknowns—asking what different scenarios might unfold, what options they offer, and how much risk and investment are we willing to make.
  • Framing the intentional goals being pursued. Are they possible?

To think further about mapping both the analogies being used and possible scenarios in this case just check out Thomas Friedman’s column in the Sunday Times Sunday Review section. Listen to how our political representatives are discussing the policy arguments.

In today’s world of constant change being able to think strategically be it around personal career choices, organizational related options, or participating in broader policy discussions is a critical skill set. Developing this skill set in our society is a major adult learning and educational challenge. Complexity doesn’t follow ideological reasoning.

Can bosses force their opinions on workers? –

Can bosses force their opinions on workers? -

Can bosses force their opinions on workers? –

The perspectives offered in this Judgement Call piece in the Financial Times August 21st. are representative of two positions that are both interesting, but also too simple for today’s complex environment. It sets up an overly dichotomous argument. The point made by Julian Birkinshaw that the best bosses see the world through the eyes of their employees is very valid, particularly in an business environment marked by uncertainty and ambiguity. In today’s environment what is known as relational leadership is critical as noted by researchers such as Mary Uhl-Bien, Sonia Ospina, and Valerie Gauther among others. This is not top down leadership but leadership that connects networks and encourages diverse opinions. Relational leadership is critical to avoiding the collective myopia that top down leadership can lead to. Under conditions of uncertainty experience is a double edge sword.

Karen Moloney’s point that bosses need to articulate their values is also critical as long as those values promote diverse perspectives and the decision being “forced” is foundational for the values the organization stands for. In short, relational or complexity leadership is necessary in today’s environment. So too is ensuring underlying values are maintained. Leadership is emergent in between the various actors in the organization, not embedded in a single person.