Is Ambiguity Making Your Organization Less Effective and Efficient?

Many of us have dedicated our careers to helping organizations improve and grow. That may mean servicing customers more effectively, saving patients lives, or making higher quality products. I often become involved with organizations as they are trying to streamline some part of the business.  I often see a lack of clarity about who does the work, where that work should happen, and how people are organized to perform that work.  One word that sums up all these issues is ambiguity.  Rampant ambiguity is the antithesis of a well-run organization. 

Recently I searched online job descriptions for the word “ambiguity”. I was horrified to find that thousands of jobs list “working in ambiguity” as an essential requirement. Do potential employees find that requirement attractive?  People today don’t just want a job. They want a place where they can have fun, feel like they belong, and make a difference. Is it wise to send a message to potential employees that they will be coming into an unclear, chaotic, and ambiguous organization? 

Here is a quick test to see if ambiguity has taken hold in your organization:

  1. Go to your company’s website and search your open job postings for the word “ambiguity”.  Did you find it?  Does it have a negative connotation?
  2. Ask participants in the meetings you attend today if they can clearly articulate their department’s top three priorities and how they contribute to those priorities.  Are they successful?
  3. Are you performing work that doesn’t match your job description?
  4. Is it common to hear terms like churn, swirl, or tiger teams in your organization?

If you answered some or all of these questions positively, your organization might be allowing more ambiguity than is necessary or desirable. 

How can you address ambiguity in the workplace? Often ambiguity originates with misalignments in the fundamental building blocks of an organization.  In the book Mastering the Cube, my colleagues identified six areas of possible organizational misalignment.  Here are those areas and how you can resolve ambiguity in each of them:

Work Processes

What to look for:

  • Is there a single process owner for the most critical business processes?
  • Are people doing the same or similar work in different departments?
  • Is it clear who to talk to if a work activity is not going well?

What to do:

Start by creating a catalog of the most critical work and making sure those processes are documented. Assign a single process owner to each one and put performance measures in place to monitor them.

Structure and Governance

What to look for:

  • Is it clear who has decision rights for critical operational, coordinating, and strategic work?
  • Is there a highly matrixed organization structure?
  • Are leaders making daily operational decisions?

What to do:

Start by capturing the daily decisions and documenting who has the authority to make those decisions.  Decision rights should be pushed to the lowest level of the organization. Associates should be empowered and have the necessary skills to make autonomous decisions.

Information and Metrics

What to look for:

  • Are decisions made using data?
  • Is it easy to get access to the correct data in real time to make decisions?
  • Are there clear performance indicators for critical customer-facing interactions?

What to do:

There are three critical steps to solving problems using data.  The first is to clarify what constitutes a defect for every process.  Once you define what a defect is, measure how often it happens.  The third and most important step is to calculate the cost of the defect so you can report on that cost regularly.

People and Rewards

What to look for:

  • Does the work done on a daily basis for a specific role match the job description for the role?
  • Is the same job description title used across many departments for roles that do different work?
  • Is it clear what the job competencies are, and is there a development path to reach the next level?

What to do:

While many people like to have variety in their work, it is vital to be clear on expected results.  If needed, build creative thinking time into the role. However, do not bypass job performance expectations because you are concerned about stifling creativity or removing empowerment.

Continuous Improvement

What to look for:

  • Are employees complaining about problems, but no one feels it is their job to fix the issue permanently?
  • Is a continuous improvement mindset part of the culture?
  • Are there formal and informal mechanisms to capture and implement improvement ideas?
  • Are CI efforts encouraged and rewarded?
  • Are self-renewal activities built into the daily work?

What to do:

Continuous improvement is everyone’s job. The most important thing leaders can do to encourage CI is to model the behavior. We all need to identify little things we can do every day to improve our performance. Start by looking at the work you did today and find one thing you can improve. Make the change happen immediately.

Leadership and Culture

What to look for:

  • Are you making decisions that your team should be making?
  • Are you focused on developing your replacement as a priority?
  • As a leader, are you reinforcing the most critical aspects of the organization’s culture every day? 
  • Are you modeling the right behaviors by leading by example, empowering people to make decisions, and clearing obstacles for your team?

What to do:

Ensure you are behaving in ways that drive the culture towards what is strategically important. In most organizations, pushing decision-making down is difficult but ideal, as is developing your people by giving them new challenges and supporting them to be successful.

By focusing on these six areas of potential misalignment, you start down the path of removing ambiguity and building a pleasant yet challenging workplace.  The world is moving quickly, and speed is fostered by clarity, not confusion. Ultimately, eliminating unnecessary ambiguity sharpens your strategic focus and enables greater agility.

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