Clarity over Certantity

In the last 6 months I’ve heard several senior-level executives talk about the need for clarity over certainty. Clarity sounds simple, but it’s not. We embrace agility because it helps us adapt to the turbulence — business, economic, and technological – that creates opportunity and peril. Most of the time significant changes create mounds of uncertainty and the decisions required to respond to those changes are never clear-cut. There is never one obvious option, but a multitude of options that seem reasonable. There is never enough information, and the information is often contradictory. Change creates ambiguity, uncertainty, doubt, and indecision that lead to floundering.

Adaptive leaders have the ability to cleave through this ambiguity, to focus on a decision when everyone else is struggling, to clarify direction when everyone else sees confusion. In today’s highly amplified environment, waiting for certainty ensures failure. There was an article in Harvard Business Review several years ago in which a CEO of a fast-moving, high-tech company said something to the effect of “my job is to reduce ambiguity.” He realized that at some point the debate among his management team needed to end, that he needed to cut through the uncertainty and make critical decisions. He needed to be clear, even when everyone knew the situation was uncertain.

Change also implies adaptation. We throw around such words as “agility,” “adaptation,” and “flexibility” as if they were easy to implement, so why isn’t everyone doing it? Because successful agility requires strong leaders at every level. We need technical leaders who can cut through the myriad of technological possibilities to set direction. We need product leaders who can sort through the myriad of new product possibilities to bring the right product to market. And we need executives who can grab opportunities in turbulent markets and make clear decisions to move forward.

Adaptive leaders are those who have vision and foresight; who can articulate clear direction; who can persist in the face of ambiguity, uncertainty, and doubt; who can adapt before their focus becomes obsession. Growing leaders who embody these traits is a critical task in building agile/adaptive organizations.