‘Ambiguity is the enemy of execution’
Stephen Kelly, CEO, Sage Group (2016)
Well guess what? The levels of ambiguity (or equivocality) have never been higher! And, this is, indeed, problematic for coherent decision-making and effective actions. However, equally, too little variety (of thought) is problematic, a dialectic for leaders to resolve in real-time complex dynamic environments. Central to solving this dilemma is the emphasis on requisite [variety], not the overwhelming inertia-inducing forms of variety to which Stephen alludes; his hypothesis is correct as far as it goes – but it is also too simplistic.
As individuals and organisations, we are preoccupied with reducing the world to simple regular patterns of predictable outcomes based on what went before. In this way we are in constant danger of being trapped by the notion that ‘seeing is believing’. Despite our predilection for simple recipes and unequivocal solutions, we live in a world that provides equivocal inputs, and, if we are to make sense of them, first we have to register the unequivocal, hence the law of requisite variety: 'the variety within a system must be at least as great as the environmental variety against which it is attempting to regulate itself’. Put more succinctly, only variety can regulate variety. An example of the principle of requisite variety is that if a photographer has to photograph 20 subjects at different distances then the camera has to have at least 20 settings - if it has fewer it will lack the requisite variety to register sufficient detail to provide uniform clarity throughout the range of photographs.
Only variety can regulate variety and that is why in order to make sense of an apparently nonsensical world, the best stance is to meet it on many fronts and with novelty - indeed this is where learning begins. However, working against this is a strong tendency within organisations to use memory to define situations in the same old ways and to plug in the same old responses – this is where learning does not begin.
If we want to survive in a world replete with equivocality, we have to complicate our thinking and ask ‘what 'if questions rather than 'why' if questions; the former assumption challenges us to think of possibilities (the unknown - expanding equivocality) whereas the latter assumption challenges us to think of probabilities (the known - reducing equivocality). It is only when we ask what is the situation? (the here and now) that we are able to deal with the consequence.
Organisations that process equivocal inputs must themselves retain the capacity for equivocality - discrediting the past by adopting a view that believing is not necessarily seeing in order to avoid failure through non-adaptation. If this sounds simple, then we need to heed the truism that simple models often disguise complex actions and achieving requisite variety is much harder to achieve than it looks.
If leaders are to reach a symmetry between too much, and too little variety they need help with the ‘heavy lifting’ of gathering cues and clues from across their organisations with fast and effective methods – that too, is a crucial challenge for the times in which we live.
Moving from “managing the probable” to “leading the possible” requires us to address challenges in a fundamentally different way. Rather than simply disaggregating complexities into pieces we find more tractable, we should also broaden our range of interventions by breaking out of familiar patterns and using a whole new approach that allows us to expand our options, experiment in low-risk ways, and realize potentially outsized payoffs. But be warned: leading the possible involves coping with our own anxieties about an unknowable and uncontrollable world. A few simple habits of mind presented here can prod us toward thinking and acting differently. These should not be considered a checklist of to-dos; indeed, the very point is to move beyond a check-the-box mentality.