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When environments become complex focusing on individual components leads to ambiguity as the can only be understood by looking at their connection and relationship to the whole

When environments become complex focusing on individual components leads to ambiguity as within complex systems the parts can only be understood by looking at their connection and relationship to the whole

Ambiguity is the quality of being open to more than one interpretation.1 It results in the haziness of reality; the potential for misreading and mixed meanings to conditions. In relatively simple environments we can have simple linear cause and effect models that are the product of a single perspective with a single right or wrong, black or white description for events. In complex environments linear reductionist thinking breaks down, the causes behind effects get lost to our vision in the haze of complexity.
In complex environments it becomes more difficult to see what is behind things, events just happen and they remain open to a number of different interpretations as to why; what we call ambiguity. Reductionist approaches in management reduce our description of phenomena to a single dimensional perspective, this creates very brittle models that are either right or wrong. When environments become more complex events require multiple perspectives in order to interpret them. The traditional mono-dimensional perspective becomes increasingly redundant and even worse a hindrance to the acceptance of not knowing. The end result can be a shock, aka a “reality check”. Due to their black and white nature, linear models do not fail gracefully. Complex environments require us to invest more in developing models that capture the context within which events play out. This means a switch from trying to analyse and understand the events themselves in isolation to understanding the space around them that gives them context; what artist call the negative space.

Systems Thinking

Resolving this ambiguity requires systems thinking. Systems thinking places greater emphases upon understanding the relations that give an object or event its place within some broader environment it is a part of. Instead of trying to describe and understand the event by describing its properties, systems thinking reasons backwards, by first having an overview to the environment we can understand a system through its connections to other systems within that environment and thus understand it with respect to its place within the whole environment it is a part of. By looking at the whole environment that the event or object is a part of, we can gain multiple different perspectives (through each of its different connections) each perspective will give us a richer and more robust multidimensional understanding.
The net result is a containment or confinement of ambiguity to a limited set of possible interpretations. Even if we do not fully understand the phenomena, by having a deeper understanding of the context we are able to have some parameters within which to interpret individual events. Thus it is still required that we learn to make decisions without absolute knowledge and information and are able to hold two contrasting ideas. Leaders in complex environments need to be able to handle ambiguity and make judgments when the ‘facts’ are unclear or evolving, in other words not be overly dependent upon quantitative, fact based methods of reasoning in supporting their decision making, but be able to respond to the overall context instead

Cite this article as: Joss Colchester, "Ambiguity," in Complexity Academy, October 7, 2016,
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