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What’s this now? Dealing with ambiguity

Most folks spend their first 18 to 22 years in school before working a full-time job. At school, you learn how to get by, and perhaps excel in areas of particular interest. But there’s one area in which school is structurally ill-suited to prepare you for work: dealing with ambiguity. If your teacher and/or study materials are ambiguous, you can’t learn the material and be evaluated fairly. Even when clever teachers introduce ambiguity into assignments, they guide students in removing it and become the gatekeepers of clarification. Work isn’t like that.

At work, there isn’t one gatekeeper of truth. At first, managers might seem like the final arbiters of clarification, but you quickly learn they aren’t. You can’t rely on mentors, architects, program managers, tech leads, or product owners to play this role either. Each of these people has an opinion, and often those opinions differ. What’s worse, many of these people think they are the final arbiters, even when they aren’t. Who is the final arbiter of direction, requirements, approach, prioritization, design, implementation, and validation? You are—and you’re clueless.

How do you deal with ambiguity, especially when work is full of it (in every sense)? How do you estimate deliverables, prioritize assignments, design solutions, choose implementations, and verify requirements when there’s no single individual to tell you the right thing to do and the right way to do it? Let’s shine the light of clarity and reveal the truth that ambiguity conceals.

Eric Aside

For more on telling the truth, read To tell the truth and More than open and honest.

Who cares?

I have plenty of columns on estimation, prioritization, planning, design, implementation, and validation. Let’s focus on removing ambiguity from these activities. To remove ambiguity, you seek sources of clarification. You search online, examine the codebase, ask online communities, and reach out to experts (teammates, customers, partners, and leaders).

Each of these sources of clarification may provide valuable information. (Providing clarity is a key leadership attribute.) However, information from one source often conflicts with information from another. Sometimes that’s due to differences of opinion or interpretation, and sometimes there’s real uncertainty. Who knows? Not you.

Regardless, you’re probably wondering, “How am I supposed to work like this? Doesn’t anybody know anything? How does any work ever get done? What the heck is wrong with this planet?” Congratulations, you are on your way toward enlightenment. It’s not just you, your coworkers, or your company that’s mixed up—it’s the entire universe. That’s okay; we accept it and move forward. That’s how work gets done.

After you’ve obtained (and accepted) contradictory information, the next step is to determine who cares. As informative as they are, the internet and codebase don’t care. Some experts don’t care much—they provide opinions and withdraw. Other experts care a great deal. If those caring experts have the power to reject your choices, you must take their input seriously. That doesn’t mean you agree with them or do what they say, only that you ensure their needs and concerns are resolved.

Eric Aside

For more on when and how to ask for help, read When to ask for help.

Growing consensus

You’ve gathered a bunch of information and opinions. You know who cares and needs their concerns resolved. Now, you get to decide what to do. Even if your information is incomplete, you get to remove the ambiguity unilaterally—you’re in charge of your choices.

If you decide to act in a way that’s consistent with the needs and concerns of those who care, fantastic. You inform them, as needed, and then move forward. This is the easy route and often the right choice.

If you decide to act in a way that’s consistent with the needs and concerns of those who care, but they don’t agree with each other, that’s fine. Organize a meeting with the people who care, provide a subject and agenda that makes the disconnect clear, describe the disconnect in the meeting, and let the participants argue it out while you sit back and take notes. (You need rapid back and forth between people, so doing this through email or messages doesn’t work.) Provide a follow-up email documenting the issues that arose and the final decision you made together.

If you decide to act in a way that aligns with some experts, but conflicts with other experts who care, you’re going to need a posse. Collect a list of experts who agree with you. Have them help you build a case for taking the action you prefer. Then invite them to meet with the other experts who care but disagree. The meeting is like the one described in the previous paragraph, but instead of sitting back and taking notes, you are encouraging experts who support you to make your case with you. Hopefully, you’ll receive permission to proceed as you wish or come to a reasonable compromise. Regardless, provide a follow-up email about your shared decision.

Eric Aside

For more on driving consensus, read You have to make a decision and Pacify office politics.

A great fit

Many common practices are built to remove ambiguity in just the way I described. Planning poker brings experts together, has them provide potentially conflicting estimates, and then works to resolve the estimates quickly. Design reviews and code reviews also bring experts together to resolve ambiguity and drive consensus quickly. Stand-up meetings set prioritization and adjust plans (efficiently if you remain standing). Sprint reviews and demos can provide quick feedback, validating requirements.

These specialized meetings can help you remove common sources of ambiguity quickly in a well-understood and accepted manner. If you suspect that your views may conflict with other experts who care, be sure to prepare in advance with your posse.

Eric Aside

For more on best practices, read The good stuff.

What do you think?

It’s easiest to go along with the experts who care the most and have the most power. Much of the time, that’s the right thing to do. However, occasionally you may disagree. You and your posse might feel anxious about pushing back against those in power. Get over it.

I don’t care what level you are or how much experience and education you have. What you think matters. If you disagree with the direction powerful experts want you to take, you owe it to yourself, your posse, and your company to be heard. You can present your case respectfully, stick to the facts as you understand them, and be open to the opinions and concerns of experts who disagree with you. Perhaps they’ll sway you. Perhaps you’ll sway them. Either way, you’ll all be better off for doing so.

Eric Aside

For more on engaging powerful leaders, read The VP-geebees and Controlling your boss for fun and profit.

And we’re moving

In school, teachers and professors work hard to remove ambiguity so that students can learn and gain confidence. In real life, ambiguity is everywhere. Yes, there are scientific, legal, and other verifiable facts, but the world is filled with grey. Accept it and move forward. Collect information and opinions from the best sources available. Determine who cares enough and has sufficient power to reject the choices you make. Make your choice—it’s up to you. If everyone who cares agrees with you, inform them and move on. If they don’t agree with each other, have a meeting to drive for alignment. If you choose to push back against experts who care, build a posse of folks who agree with you and have a meeting to sway those who disagree. Take advantage of common practices that remove ambiguity, such as planning poker, design and code reviews, stand-up meetings, and sprint reviews and demos. And finally, get over your fear and anxiety to take on the powerful with your posse, being respectful, factual, and open-minded.

As a student, it’s comforting to know there’s a right answer. Unfortunately, life is full of ambiguity, which can be scary and disorienting. That’s okay. You can still move forward and get things done that make a difference. Become informed as best you can. Listen to others but trust yourself. Act on your best judgment. And remain open to learning and adjusting throughout your life. That’s the path to a life well lived.

Eric Aside

Special thanks to Irada Sadykhova for reviewing the first draft of this month’s column.

Want personalized coaching on this topic or any other challenge? Schedule a free, confidential call. I provide one-on-one career coaching with an emphasis on underrepresented, midcareer software professionals. Find out more at Ally for Onlys in Tech.

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