The fallacy of “thriving in ambiguity”

A key mantra in Google’s work culture and across big tech is “thriving in ambiguity”: The ability to make progress and make good decisions in the presence of uncertainty around the future in general and the interpretation of the data available today.

Foggy train lights showing red and yellow signals

It is very human to be uncomfortable with ambiguity. It can be very nice to just follow procedure and execute on a well laid out plan pointing toward a known objective. And reality is that many jobs are like that. You learn it, you progress your skills, and while you may face many challenges along the way, the solutions stay within a relatively tight framework of the job description.

“Thriving in ambiguity” means to do well when all of that is not the case. You have to dynamically adapt, rapidly learn new skills, execute, pivot, be willing to cut your losses, and do it all over again as new information emerges–all without knowing you are on the right track.

I’m all for learning to be more comfortable with ambiguity. I might even be good at it. But this post is about when “thriving in ambiguity” is a potential fallacy and how to do even better.

My basic thesis is: Ambiguity is bad #

My basic thesis is: Ambiguity is bad. You should thrive in it, sure, but you should also strive to eliminate it whenever possible.

Ambiguity is bad because it impacts the efficiency of communication #

I’ve seen many teams that couldn’t decide on what the right path forward is. Subsequently, all communication needs to be qualified: “Assuming for a bit that X is true, we should do Y”. What inevitably happens is that someone doesn’t add the qualification and now every listener makes their own assumptions which scenario of possible futures the speaker likely meant. Typically folks eventually figure out when they got the interpretation of the scenario wrong but only after lots of time has been lost to folks arguing over things only to find out they were operating under different basic assumptions.

Ambiguity is bad because it has opportunity cost #

If you hedge your bets due to inability to make the right decision, you’re likely not executing as well on the options as if you’d concentrated on a single one. A question I’m often asking my teams is “Is the maximum delta in outcome between two options actually bigger than the cost of reduced focus in execution?” More often than not, the answer is no. In that case you are better off focusing on one option, and doing it truly well.

“Thriving in ambiguity” can cloud your judgment #

Finally, “thriving in ambiguity” can cloud your judgment such that you end up treating every situation as if it was truly ambiguous. Some things are actually clear and simple, but I’ve seen teams run the “ambiguity playbook” without critically thinking about the necessity. That makes you and your team less efficient and effective. Instead try to always think about the degree of uncertainty and tailor your behavior to it.

In summary: Thrive in ambiguity, but be aware of the way it impacts your team communication, its opportunity cost, and make a habit out of critically thinking about whether a situation is truly ambiguous.