Apr 17, 2013

intentional ambiguity

Monday, 4/22/2013; 10am to noon
Baker Library 102, Harvard Business School [map]
Amy Edmondson (co-chair), Christopher Winship (co-chair), Jeffrey T. Polzer

Intentional ambiguity
Vaughn Tan

Organizations increasingly operate in uncertain external environments which are not only risky (uncertain in quantifiable ways) but also ambiguous (unquantifiably uncertain, featuring unclear reality, causality, or intentionality). Though the two types of uncertainty have different implications for decision-making and action, organizational theory and practice generally neglect ambiguity by conflating it with risk. How should an organization respond when the uncertainty in its environment comprises both risk and ambiguity? And what are the intended and unintended effects of these organizational responses?
I answer these questions by analysing data collected over four years from observations at nine high-end avant-garde culinary groups and 80 interviews with respondents working in the industry. My findings suggest that external ambiguity can be managed through costly internal processes that make it more likely that a group and its members can detect and respond to changes in the environment—processes that result from intentional internal ambiguity of member roles and group goals. I then describe a general mechanism by which intentional internal ambiguity supports group adaptability.

My findings complement the risk-management view of managing uncertainty by re-stating the distinction between risk and ambiguity and documenting organizational responses that are specific to the latter and not the former. I suggest that an appropriate approach to managing the unquantifiable uncertainty of ambiguity is to increase the likelihood that a group can adapt as ambiguous conditions change and show that this can be done by incorporating ambiguity into the internal operations of the group.

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