Diagnosis and Holding Ambiguity

Within our modern Organisations, we do not simply need a capability to ‘do’, so much as an ability to ‘diagnose’. To take a look at the seemingly familiar, simple, or one dimensional, and to understand it in terms of broader context, indications, or connection to, or within, a broader system.

Essentially to understand if what we are looking at is the problem, or opportunity, itself, or merely an indicator of that.

This ability may include at least two discrete skills: firstly, a willingness to take apart the ‘known’, and secondly an ability to look beyond our boundaries.

Concepts and ideas that we understand are cognitively efficient, because once we have learned them once, they stay ‘learned’: ‘work’ is an example of that – we learn what it means, and then can slot all sorts of other activities into that category. But when what it means to ‘work’ changes, to no longer be defined by ‘place’, the category is fractured or stretched. And if we do not adapt our thinking, then our actions may lead to failure: so Organisations that insist on ‘going back’ to work, geographically, may lose out culturally.

All sorts of ideas fall into this trap – we learn how the world works and then struggle to change those ideas, because our understanding is highly elastic – we are more likely to stretch the edges of a category than to abandon it to find a new one. This is one reason why, when failure happens, it happens fast and definitively.

This is true at the level of Organisational viability or individual belief.

The first skill may sound like it’s purely intellectual: to take apart the known, but it’s constrained by the second, the ability to look beyond our boundaries. Part of ‘diagnosis’ is to even know where to look, and our comfort in the ‘known’ may blind us.

Similarly, the imperative to action is a risk: as we learn to lead, we often learn, or are taught, that leadership has an outcome of action. Rarely do we consider leadership to be thinking, then inaction. And yet inaction may be required: to do nothing, because to do something is to seek to solve a problem that may not yet be diagnosed.

Of course ‘nothing’ may not mean nothing at all: what it may mean is to continue to hold ambiguity in open arms. To observe, but not to judge, to gather, but not to analyse. Or at least not to analyse and end up closing doors.

But how do we hold ambiguity?

Again, this is partly an individual, and partly a collective phenomena: individually we may hold it in stories, and collectively we may hold it in communities (there are other ways: in technology, for example).

Stories of description, but not resolution, may be useful: this is what i see, and this is what i see next. Stories that describe, but do not solve. They may even document ambiguity and discomfort itself: ‘this is what is see’, and ‘this is how i feel about it’ – even ‘this is why i feel as i feel’, and so on. But they do not move to ‘and this is what i will do…’

Collectively, the opportunity to share those stories, and to look and listen for weak signals: to do this requires us to understand how Dominant Narratives are formed within groups, and to hold a collective ability to challenge them. To recognise when we are becoming trapped. All of which is about looking down at our feet and recognising when our laces are tied together.

If you are interested in practicing Social Leadership Daily, you can find my newsletter here, with 60 seconds a day of questions, activity, and reflection.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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