Where Ambiguity Meets Agility
by Gary Burnison
Oh, turn some pages
I'll be here when you are ready
To roll with the changes
- REO Speedwagon
The pilot’s announcement was the last thing any of us wanted to hear. “Sorry, folks. We’re not going anywhere.”
It was many years ago, and I was en route to Madrid for a series of important meetings, with a connection in London’s Heathrow Airport. Along the way, however, the flight was diverted because of a snowstorm, and we had to land in Shannon, Ireland.
Not only were we in the wrong place, but the crew had exceeded their legal flying time, so we’d be stuck there for 14 hours. When I looked out the window, I saw no other planes at the gates. I had to do something.
I grabbed my carry-on (I never check luggage—for this very reason), deboarded the plane, and rented a car. Driving 120 kilometers along country roads in the rain, I made it from Shannon to the city of Cork where I got the only available seat on a regional airline. Last row, in the middle—but I didn’t care.
I landed at Heathrow around midnight, stayed at an airport hotel, and got up at 4:30 in the morning to catch the flight to Madrid. But I made it on time. Moral of the story: We can’t control the weather, but we can—and must—adjust our sails.
We’re all on an airplane these days—up in the air, and not sure of where or when we’re going to land. When ambiguity is imposed on us, agility is our response. Combined, it’sambigility—and that’s what will get us through.
We’re in a constant state of flux—think about it. Masked, unmasked. Fully vaccinated, maybe a booster. Back to the office, maybe not yet (or ever). Virus variants—Delta, Lambda, [fill in the next one]. Extreme weather. Global unrest…. Even when we feel things are looking up, we’re always looking over our shoulders for the next down.
This push-pull, if-then world is like a Monte Carlo simulation running in real time. We’re trying to anticipate what lies ahead by plugging in all we think we know about today’s reality. But the more we’re all immersed in ambiguity, the less information we have. And that’s the conundrum.
For leaders, this is not surrender. It’s all about finding serenity—what can we change, what must we accept.
The good news is we’re not where we were. We’ve built new muscles, perhaps without even realizing it. We’ve become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Today, however, it feels like we’re all at the crossroads where the world’s ambiguity is testing our agility. And our response can be nothing short of ambigility. We’re learning what to do when we don’t know what to do amid circumstances and challenges we’ve never seen before.
We’re in a state of transition—and maybe always will be. As Bryan Ackermann, Managing Partner of our firm’s Global Leadership and Professional Development practice, told me this week: “In the beginning, we all just wanted to get through the pandemic. Now, we realize we are living in it. We can’t be in such a race to get back to the familiar that we fail to see things as they really are.”
We can’t control it. We have to roll with it. Here are some thoughts:
- Rolling with it. No one is going to pull the sword out of the stone for us. We need the grit and grace to do it for ourselves. But hubris and heroics, alone, won’t do the job. As paradoxical as it may sound, the only way to develop ambigility is by acknowledging what we can’t do by ourselves. As Evelyn Orr, Chief Operating Officer of the Korn Ferry Institute, told me this week. “In this environment, it’s no longer about believing that ‘I alone can make things happen.’ It’s acknowledging that we’re all part of an ecosystem that we can influence, but not change by sheer force of will.” Knowledge is what we know, but it takes ambigility to acknowledge what we don’t know—and can’t control.
- Not if/then—more than. “Ambi” derives from Latin, meaning both. So, ambiguity really means things could possibly move in two (or more) directions. Same thing with ambivalence. It doesn’t mean we don’t care—we just feel equally strong in both directions. That’s why we need ambigility—so we can make it all work. Just like the batter who can hit from both sides of the plate, we become ambidextrous. As our firm defines it, ambidexterity is where strength meets flexibility—for example, performing today and transforming for tomorrow. As a chief medical officer told me just the other day, “We can have both ends of a spectrum and balance the needs accordingly. That changes how we perceive challenges today as not just problems to fix, but poles to leverage.” After all, in life and leadership, few things are either/or, if/then. They’re more than.
- Where anticipate bumps into navigate. This L.A. story happened on a Saturday morning—just a week ago. Traffic was crawling, bumper to bumper, down the 405. Gripping the steering wheel, I made eye contact with the driver in the next lane—both of us exasperated. I had anticipated that the freeways would be clearer on a weekend. Instead, I was navigating a traffic snarl for two long hours to reach downtown L.A. No accidents, no construction, no reason why. Flash forward two days to Monday. I had a meeting in downtown L.A., at almost the exact location as Saturday’s destination. With schools back in session and people returning to offices and businesses, I anticipated crowded freeways—so I left more than two hours ahead of time. But this time, it was blue sky and completely open lanes—and I reached downtown in a mere 45 minutes. Same location, two different days, two completely different outcomes. Quick on a rush hour day, slow on a leisure day. These days, it’s as if anticipation and navigation have become “frenemies”—interconnected but often clashing. Within that tension, we must constantly anticipate what lies ahead and in all directions and continuously navigate in the moment. And it starts with the paradoxical reality of today.
- “In a perfect world....” How many times have we heard those words? What comes next is almost always a commentary of how things should be. But there is no perfect world—and futilely looking for one only makes everything else seem far worse by comparison. This reminds us of the wise words of President Theodore Roosevelt: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” We need to stop looking for some mythical “perfect” solution and focus instead on what will work for us right now. Not a year from now, not six months, maybe not even next month. Today. That’s the world we live in. Granted, ambiguousness is no one’s favorite state of being—we much prefer clarity. But there’s no avoiding the fact that today’s new world and the workscape in which we operate are still largely gray and unknown—and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
We make our path as we walk it along a road that is anything but linear. It twists and turns—sometimes rushing us forward, other times slowing us to a crawl, or even diverting us to places unknown. We can’t change it, so we might as well go with it. Indeed, with ambigility, it won’t matter where the path goes—only how we respond.
Originally published on August 22, 2021 by Gary Burnison on Kornferry.com.