Getting to ground with uncertainty, ambiguity and just plain vagueness or “you know everything I do”

Version 2

On some of my “I feel  like a bad manager” days, I’ve struggled mightily with needing to give vague instructions to advance a product and feeling discomfort if not resistance, resentment, anger and panic as employees work through the process.

With experience, I am now much more careful to share that I am not withholding information (“I know everything you know”) and I take care to erase the concern that I am delegating so quickly that I have skimmed over details that could support the iteration process.

I also now understand some of the reasons behind the negative emotions I see in these situations and it is helpful: I don’t want to waste time, I don’t want to look stupid, and I think this is pointless because your instructions are so vague that it is impossible for me to hit the mark.

And in fairness, as this recent piece from Fast Company outlines well, our formal training may well not prepare us to deal with ambiguity which is basically an opportunity to be creative or innovative and think about solutions that we may only discover through the process itself.

In bureaucratic settings we are not necessary advancing our skills to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty.  We are usually bounded by time, templates, page limits etc.

So how do we pull through when we know so little? The main thing is to advance something somehow so here are my tips:

  • I appreciate that the Fast Company piece focuses on the need to trust the effectiveness of your regular processes including your standard ways of researching problems and mining your existing networks for information.
  • Instead of focusing on the fact that limited boundaries could give rise to an infinite scope of products, focus on the fact that a good product can take many different forms.  If someone comes back with “I was thinking of a chart not a narrative actually” you can add that to your stash of useful information.
  • I’d suspect that vague iterations may especially painful for perfectionists.  This is a great moment to leave these tendencies at the door as best you can.  My best response to vague instructions is usually to jump in with a couple of iterations much earlier in the game than I would normally to figure out if I am even in the ballpark.  
  • I’d recommend to calibrate your normal reactions to feedback so that you are even less sensitive to anything negative or critical that comes your way in reaction to your iterations because you know that the instructions were vague.
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