What If Ambiguity Was a Good Thing?

Many of us search for our ability to “know” specific data. We want to know when the pandemic will end? When will the team finish their work? Or even when we will arrive at our destination? However, the farther out and the more specific we want that knowledge to be, the more it costs us to discover it. Those costs include time and money. When we need to know, we exhibit the certainty mindset.

Instead of that certainty mindset, what if we embraced comfort with ambiguity? Instead of spending time and money to create certainty, we could replan and adapt.

That’s the adaptability mindset—ways we can live with ambiguity.

We need certainty for some things in our lives. For example, I like knowing when to expect my husband home for dinner. Even then, I don’t look for the exact time he’ll be home. Instead, I want to know a plus or minus ten minutes or so. If he’s not home then, I’ll start dinner.

That’s an easy way to live with ambiguity. I’ve seen that people have significant concerns that sometimes prevent them from living with ambiguity:

Their concerns:

  1. They need to know the exact data.
  2. They’re not sure of the worst thing that can happen if they don’t know or acquire the data.
  3. Too often, they don’t know how to create alternate plans.

Let’s start with the need to know concern.

Concern 1: I need to know

Last week, my husband and I took a quick vacation that required a flight. Flights have been iffy for months now. Sure enough, the airline told us they delayed our return flight by half an hour for weather reasons.

We try to manage our travel risks by avoiding tight connections. Even if our connecting flight took off on time, we should have time to make that flight.

However, since our connection was the place with weather, all the outbound flights were delayed, too. We had enough time.

Travel has built-in risks. We can’t know everything about when we will take off or arrive. Even when the airlines canceled my flights, they often did so in time for me to make other arrangements. (Not always, but most of the time.)

In this case, the airline was transparent about its data—we received updates on our flight, our connection, and the weather. We saw progress. (We also got home just a little late.)

The rest of life has built-in risks, too. That’s why I always wonder when people want certainty instead of seeing progress. I suspect they have not yet assessed the risks of not knowing.

Concern 2: Assess the risks of not knowing

I’m a huge fan of seeing progress instead of planning for certainty. Maybe that’s my project management experience. Murphy’s Law says that things will go wrong at the worst possible time. And Hofstadter’s Law states that things take longer, even when you take Hofstadter’s Law into account.

What is the risk of not knowing?

For most societal issues, we’ll learn soon enough. For example, for the pandemic, we can be pretty sure we’ll have another wave of infections in the fall and winter. Especially if you, as I do, live where we move back inside because of the cold.

Do we need to know when the pandemic will end?

I don’t think that’s a knowable question. Instead, I want to have an idea of knowing when children can get their vaccinations. I don’t even need to know the exact date the vaccinations will be available. I can manage the risks to my beloved family members by wearing a mask myself.

When we can manage our risks, we might not need to know specific data.

In contrast to my vacation return flight, what if I was traveling with an organ for a transplant? I might want a lot more information about flights and alternatives. And that goes to the ease of replanning.

Concern 3: The ease of creating alternate plans

How easy is it for you to see alternatives? The closer we get to our destinations or final states, the fewer alternatives we have.

Unfortunately, my husband has encountered significant traffic on the last stretch coming home. By that time, he has few, if any, alternate routes.

You might feel the same for most other travel, including airplanes. (We have several apps that help us replan our travel, if necessary.)

However, we have many more options for projects, the pandemic, and other situations, especially if we create risk-based plans early.

I practice changing plans. I recommend you do, too.

How? Consider rolling-wave plans for everything you do.

In a rolling wave, you plan for a short time, then update the plan once you’ve hit a particular time or a deliverable. (See Rolling Wave Planning as a start if you haven’t read any of my project-focused books. I chose that link so you could see how long I’ve been practicing replanning.)

The more alternate plans you can imagine, the less time and money you spend trying to acquire good data. Instead, you can work with recent data that’s easy to gather at a low cost.

Ambiguity Can Help Us Grow

While I prefer more certainty, I like to practice adaptability and resilience. Ambiguity challenges me and offers me plenty of practice.

I’m not saying you should “relax and enjoy” the ambiguity in your life or work. That discounts our choices for risk management. However, the more I practice living with ambiguity, the more I see alternatives to my current practices.

You might, too. If you do, reply and let me know.


I have a new writing book, Free Your Inner Nonfiction Writer, in the May 2022 Write Stuff storybundle. My book is exclusive to the bundle, which ends May 12. I’ll publish that book everywhere late this month.

I’m leading a session at the Leading Complexity series of masterclasses: Modern Management: Position Yourself to Take Advantage of Complexity. Yes, it’s about the ideas in the Modern Management books, but you’ll recognize many of the ideas. Use this coupon for a 20% discount: ROTHMANFRIEND20.

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Till next time,


© 2022 Johanna Rothman

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