chapter  1
Why are uncertainty, ambiguity and paradox important for managers?
Pages 25

In today’s organizations leaders and managers are dealing with a great deal of uncertainty and ambiguity and must straddle a number of paradoxes. They are obliged to exercise a degree of control, and yet they must encourage their staff to be creative and independent thinkers. On the one hand, they may be very experienced but, on the other hand, their experience may blind them to novel opportunities which emerge in complex environments. Senior teams are often encouraged to change and to innovate, and at the same time they are expected to stand firm for the traditional values, and the ‘brand’ which their organization represents. Paradoxically, they are enjoined to change in order to stay the same: in other words they have to innovate to sustain organizational continuity. And yet, despite the uncertain environment and contradictory injunctions, a lot

of talk in organizations, and in management literature, is highly purposeful and deals in certainties. For example, the ideal for senior teams is that managers and leaders choose the future for their organizations, they set the ‘right’ conditions for their staff to be productive, and they can even change the culture. By implication senior managers and leaders get to their exalted place in their organizations from knowing what they are doing, and acting ‘appropriately’, decisively and authoritatively. Of course, this is no different from the dominant assumptions in a whole variety of different professions, where there is an equivalence drawn between being a professional and certainty. In this context uncertainty, ambiguity and paradox, profoundly disturbing and potentially paralyzing contradictions, might seem like very abstruse subjects to write about in a book about management and organizing. It might seem counterintuitive and unhelpful to deal in the ambiguous when I might instead be offering prescriptions to managers about how to act, which is the conventional tack to take in a book on organizing. However, I do so because of my conviction that, ultimately, it is more helpful

and more realistic to try to find ways of understanding organizational life in all its

complexity, its blooming, buzzing confusion as William James once referred to experience, rather than relying on the thin simplifications which constitute the recommendations of much management literature. They are thin simplifications, a phrase I borrow from the political scientist James C Scott (1999), because they are abstractions from the rich and complex reality from which they are abstracted: in being general they are only generally useful. In my view it is just as important to treat what is, no matter how complex and messy, than what we think should be if it means that we have to reduce our ideas beyond recognition. It is my contention that managers both understand and do not understand at the same time what is going on in their organization, and this is a phenomenon worth thinking about and exploring. First, though, I should deal with the terms I am using to explain briefly what

I mean by them. As the book proceeds we will look at some of these ideas and how they manifest in organizational life in more depth. However, at this stage of the proceedings I understand uncertainty to arise from the interweaving of everyone’s intentions. We may start out by forming intentions that are permeated by our world view, which we formalize in plans, but this is also what everyone else is doing at the same time. So uncertainty arises in social life because we act into a web of other people’s actions and intentions: we can no more predict how we will respond when we encounter other people’s actions than we can always anticipate what their actions will be, although we may have strong hunches. We often experience a great deal of ambiguity, that is to say, where we are alert to a variety of different meanings of what is going on, without there necessarily being a relationship between the meanings we make. Meanwhile, contradictions, for example the injunction to stay the same/innovate, may form part of this ambiguity and produce a relationship of negation between two different interpretations. Finally, paradox is a particular form of contradiction where to think one thing is automatically to call out its polar opposite, both at the same time. Paradox is a particular property of thinking which I explore as the book unfolds. When contradictions present themselves in organizational life there is usually no

obvious way to proceed, or perhaps there are a variety of ways which all have their upsides and downsides (or perhaps all choices are equally bad). Nonetheless and in my experience most managers and leaders are already coping relatively well with their own environment of uncertainty. They are able to sustain managing and not managing in their various contexts reasonably well. However, I experience a lack of facility in being able to talk about precisely what they are doing when managers are coping with uncertainty: although they know that organizational life is unpredictable, if you ask them directly, managers seem to have precious few opportunities to explore this consciously and publicly. So what I intend to do in this book is to focus a bit more on being in control and not being in control, on those interstices in organizations when it is not always clear what to do, and when there are contradictory pressures on managers. If we could dwell with the contradictions for a while and think about what might be going on this might be just as helpful as producing a generalized piece of advice which bears no relation to the contexts in which managers are obliged to operate.