Posted on
May 2, 2023

What is the right amount of 'Strategic Ambiguity'?

When writing strategic documents or building alignment towards a common strategy we may think that being very specific is helpful. This is because we think of “The Fallacy of Detachment” from The Fall and Rise of Strategic Planning which is a false dichotomy between strategic thinking and tactical action. Every decision is a strategic one.

In fact, being too specific is bad for conveying a strategy to a group of motivated individuals. Taylorism (aka scientific management) assumes that people are mindless zombies that just need specific instructions from much savvier managers. What I’ve found is that we are looking for the right amount of guidance without telling people exactly what they need to ship but allowing them to figure out how to contextualize it.

Strategy should be a cone of possibility that everyone can innovate within. As a governing constraint, it should be incredibly clear to know if I’m within it or not. If it is too narrow we don’t allow for much else to happen. This is why saying what we aren’t going to do in a strategy is often as important as what we will do. It is meant to be broad strokes.

As Richard Rumelt says in Good Strategy, Bad Strategy: "... To have a strategy, rather than vague aspirations, is to choose one path and eschew others. There is difficult psychological, political and organizational work in saying "no" to whole worlds of hopes, dreams, and aspirations."

There is a balance between ambiguity and specificity for any strategy. How do we find the right balance?

Ambiguity allows for interpretation

I’ve often thought that the reason we want more teams to act on the context they understand more intuitively and intimately than their managers is because they are closest to the problem. If we only allow for the person at the very top of the hierarchy we end up making decisions with the complexity of one person, rather than the entire org.

We may need more ambiguity to increase the possible variance of reactions to a constantly changing and complex environment. Especially, if we want everyone to be making good decisions, not just the person at the top of the org. This is often referred to as Dominant Logic theory which points out that people in power in organizations end up naturally decreasing the variance of ideas considered because they use older decision making models that may not allow for newer, innovative ideas.

Then I came across this paper from 1984 Ambiguity as strategy in organizational communication (and reprint PDF here) by Eric Eisenberg that helped give me the concept that too much definition may not be helpful.

Eisenberg asks an important question when considering true ambiguity in communication within organizations: “How can cohesion and coordination be promoted while at the same time maintaining sufficient individual freedom to ensure flexibility, creativity, and adaptability to environmental change?

And this is because: “…the problem facing the typical organizational member is one of striking a balance between being understood, not offending others, and maintaining one’s self-image.”

We need to constantly balance personal needs of communication with how another person can fit something into their personal goals. Eisenberg again: “Ambiguity is used strategically to foster agreement on abstractions without limiting specific interpretations.”

If we can get everyone going in somewhat the same direction we are doing a good job of alignment. But we don’t want everyone to be considering the problems we come across in exactly the same way. This is why we work in cross-functional teams, ideally with different decision making authorities to get to better decisions.

He states: “Strategic ambiguity can promote unified diversity which is essential to the process of organizing.”

Ambiguity allows for communication drift

When considering the times I’ve found strategic guidance helpful I’ve often thought about Eugine Wei’s great post Compress to Impress and his time at Amazon. His point is that there is a lot of signal loss when you have highly complicated messages that need to stay intact.

Wei states: “Anyone who is lucky enough to lead a successful company very quickly senses the impossibility of scaling one's own time to all corners of the organization, but Jeff was laser focused on the more serious problem that presented, that of maintaining consistent strategy in all important decisions, many of which were made outside his purview each day. At scale, maintaining strategic alignment feels like an organizational design problem, but much of the impact of organizational design is centered around how it impacts information flow.”

What is better is to build a case for the complexity of what you are considering and then simplify it down to something that will get to the core of what you want to do. I see this as similar to being ambiguous enough to allow for variance in how someone would fit within the strategy.

I’ve often thought about how Melinda Gates would set the word of the year for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It probably allows for even more variance but I’m betting there is a lot behind that word and how it could apply to their work.

Ambiguity allows for experimentation

When we build strategies you may be inclined to be very specific and particular about the projects. However, this would create a lack of ambiguity that might help people to succeed.

I had listened to a discussion by data scientists at Microsoft that said their experiments ended up in three different modes: 1) it improved what we expected, 2) it had no effect, and 3) it actively worked against the expected improvement. There was a probability of landing on any of these outcomes of one-third.

If we bet on one, very particular project and we use this heuristic we will find that we will only be right one-third of the time. But if we allow for multiple tries we are more likely to increase our ability to succeed.

This is very true when we are giving guidance that is very specific. It is less likely we are right with that one thing, rather than giving an area to explore with multiple attempts.

The right amount of ambiguity

Consider some “smells” of an overly specific strategy:

  • Are there specific features, epics, or project names in your strategy? If they are there it is probably overly specific.
  • How many ways could someone meet this strategy? If it is very few (or only one) it is probably overly specific.
  • Is it something that allows for different people to be motivated in different ways? If it is just about increasing revenue it is probably overly specific.
  • Is this a big enough problem for everyone to solve? If it is too narrow to allow for the team to focus then you are potentially too specific (or you need a bigger team).

A simple exercise of asking “why” for any part of the strategy could help uplevel the abstraction of the strategy. We want to increase the possibility within the key reasons.

A more common call is to think about outcomes rather than outputs that you are trying to achieve for your end customer.

There can be too much ambiguity too:

  • Does it basically look like your team charter without any hard decisions? If it isn’t about making some choices it could be too ambiguous.
  • Is there a lot of hedging language like “could” or “maybe?” Too much qualification shows a lack of commitment by the leadership team.
  • Is it trying to be everything to everyone? A strategy that makes everyone happy is probably too ambiguous.
  • Is there a lot of “fluff” in the strategy? If you can’t create a “bizarro” strategy that is the opposite that makes sense it is probably too full of fluffy ambiguity.

What do you think? Have you seen patterns of ambiguity in helpful, strategic decisions?