Food for thought: how do we think about ambiguity?

Chris Jones recently posted On Semantics: Ambiguity is the Enemy and Steve Barth responded with insights about the benefits of ambiguity.

If I worked as a bench scientist, production line supervisor, warehouse manager or project manager wearing blinders, I would probably be fully supportive of Chris’ perspectives and puzzled by Steve’s. However, in most of my career as an internal or external consultant, my work has navigated considerable ambiguity. I’ve found that by letting go, I am regularly rewarded with surprises that might never have manifested with efficient implementation of pre-determined agendas. I have also seen ambiguity   nurture diversity: an important attribute of complex systems. Is it a bad thing–for example–if the CEO of a company or the Deputy Minister in government thinks of sustainability in a holistic way and encourages such thinking, but some employees use different definitions (draw different boundaries) and innovate in areas of financial, social OR ecological sustainability?

I like a lot of what Chris has written (and have tried for years to employ some of the practices he encourages) but I also raise some questions.

1) Can the idea of “carefully choosing our words” put too much emphasis on presentation and not enough on questioning and working to deeply understand? Surely if we become experts at choosing the best words, others should “get it?”

2) Might the description of knowledge management as “identification and capture of the critical insights” be an example of #1?

3) Does the assumption that one can “lock in” definitions put too much emphasis on objective, external truths and too little on internally contructed ones? Will people ever share the same feelings and truths with locked in definitions of “poverty,” “progress,” “ethics,” “knowledge,” or even “leadership”?

4) Might an attempt to lock in the definition of ontology in Chris’ post be an interesting experiment in the effectiveness of locking in? (“Ontology. This is the workhorse of describing relationships among abstract words, ideas, objects or topics. Requires more rigor, but it’s often worth it. Useful in framing complex domains or topics. Similar constructs sit at the core of conventional design methods.”)

5) Chris writes about setting boundaries right up front. I’ve written (drawing on Churchman’s and Midgley’s work) about the ethics of boundary choices: that these choices are fundamentally about power. Could up-front boundary-setting reinforce current power dynamics at the expense of important alternatives?

6) Chris emphasizes the importance of asking “What’s “in scope” vs. “out of scope” to your discussion?” This is standard project management practice, but–again–does it reduce ambiguity at a cost? All people working with knowledge management have seen executives rush into big-budget IT projects, which may come in within scope, on time and on budget, but not beginning to address the challenge that launched the work.

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