The Challenge: Tent (sans instruction) or Unknown Territories.

In General Mish-Mash, Mish-Mash of Wisdoms on September 18, 2011 at 8:30 am

From my previous two posts, it should be easy to draw a conclusion that I see organisations as facing two fundamentally different types of challenges, needing fundamentally different approaches.

The challenges are those that are:

  • well-defined, short term, measurable, failure or success is quickly known or
  • long term, seemingly nebulous, not clearly defined, and difficult to find a metric that describes success or failure.

The sorts of challenges faced by companies are invariably complex but the first type has a clear set of rules, or at least some well-defined metrics and parameters that contain the challenge. The second type have no such boundaries or containment.

A far more eloquent and evocative description for these challenges are provided by Lauren Pollack & Katherine Wakid:

  • the tent problem – imagine having all the pieces needed to put up a tent, but no instructions.
  • the Lewis & Clark problem – named after the 2 explorers who blazed the trail to the west coast of the USA in the early 19th Century.

Pollack & Wakid are part of Jump Associates, a US firm offering help to organisations who have identified a need to address this second type of problem.

Essentially their thesis is that organisations are generally well placed with resources and know-how to handle the “tent problems”. Basically, because – like putting up a tent, even with no instructions – we know what good looks like* and there is a finite and defined path that will result in achieving the required result.

The sort of problems that might fall under the title “tent problems” are:

  • making a operations more efficient,
  • optimising supply,
  • refining product mix.

The Lewis & Clark type of challenges don’t have the luxury of a well-defined “what good looks like”, they are likely to have an infinite number of approaches or methods that can lead to one a multitude of results, they are fuzzy by nature, and may lead to dead-ends, failures, backtracking, deletions, and changes.

The types of problems that may fall under this title might be:

  • how do we grow our business,
  • how do we deal with generational change in our market,
  • how do we overcome stagnancy,
  • what do we do about the decay in our brand.

Even describing these types of problems is somewhat blurry but they are no small challenges nor are they lacking importance. But not all organisations can adequately manage this type of challenge. Indeed, organisations that can consistently do seem to be a rarity. The title Pollack and Wakid’s paper describes the sort of company that copes.

Thriving in Ambiguity: Lessons From Exploratory Organizations.

Just what are those lessons? In brief, Pollack and Wakid say organizations that deal best with the Lewis & Clark, ambiguous type of challenge have the following characteristics:

  • they foster empathy with their customers
  • they are not afraid to let answers emerge over time
  • they reward learning not just results
  • they create a culture of teamwork
  • they hire hybrid thinkers who can connect seemingly disparate disciplines and ideas.

Familiar characteristics, I’m sure.  Perhaps the last one might be a new expression. But despite their familiarity and their positive qualities, few organisations demonstrate any consistent application of them.

In fact, most organisations seem intent on ensuring that they confront only the well defined, contained challenges. Perhaps they even extend this restriction to a belief that they should either know:

  • the answer to the problem they face or
  • know the way to get the right answer or
  • both the above.

There is no room for error, no room for discovery or experimentation. There is no time to wait for potential solutions to percolate. There is shame or humiliation in back-tracking after finding a dead-end.  There is no tolerance for ambiguity. Opportunities could be – probably are – missed because of a lack of capacity to deal with challenges other than those where you can tick the boxes.

Creating the space for experimentation and discovery comes from knowing that you don’t know – admissions of ignorance.

(Note for self: we are back to Nassim Nicholas Taleb here – focusing on what we don’t know rather than what we do know.)
If anyone else is reading this my apologies for that interruption.

This article – Thriving in Ambiguity – has finally given some meaning to some psychometric testing I did years ago. The testing showed, amongst other stuff, I had a high tolerance for ambiguity. For years I have wondered about this description – and now I have a reference point.

Anyway, the article is worth a look. It is also worth having a look around the Jump Associates website, it holds some interesting and enlightening work.

Note: * credit for the terminology “what good looks like” has to go to my mate Bob Adamson who came up with this expression while implementing innovative business systems project at Panthers. Or maybe it was while have one of those lengthy after-work discussions involving our colleagues Johnny and Jim – Walker & Beam, respectively.

  1. Hi there Bob

    Forgot about Mr Gerber … even though I have recently re-read a couple of his works. I have not had the chance to enjoy listening to him speak. I must get hold of some of his recordings, he is fun to listen to.

    Doin’ it, doin’ it, doin’ it!!

    … damn, are you sure Phelps didn’t compose the Star Spangled Banner?

    Hey I hope none of this sounds disparaging or dismissive of those who can put up a tent without instruction, or are interested in a world defined and finite. The world could not operate – and certainly organisation would fail – without the skill of solving contained and finite problem.

    My mishmash is only an attempt to say … there are other things, important things, that defy those parameters and need a different approach.

    Niether better nor worse … just different.

    And really, I think that is what education is about more than anything else … a different behaviour (if it is behaviour) towards differences.

    This discussion could be so much more fun in Dom’s. (Although these days we’d be shown the door a lot earlier methinks)



  2. Another enjoyable and informative “MishMash”. The ambiguity question is quite complex for me. In the same psychometric testing you refer to, I returned results indicating an “extremely low tolerance for ambiguity”. The fact that levels of tolerance differ increases the dilemna for business addressing the Lewis & Clark type critical issues. Which is why, I think, one of the characteristics of firms that successfully address the issue have hired the “hybrid” thinkers.

    Spare a thought for us low tolerance types in addressing these issues. It would appear that we may lack the “knack” for tolerating ambiguity, which makes the whole task of understanding it even harder. Let’s say we then accept what those you have cited say is true (and I do) – WTF do we do about it? How do you recognise a high tolerator during interview? Do they come from any particular professional field? You may be starting to see why those of us with low tolerance get swamped by the whole idea and probably lean more to solving the “tent” related critical issues.

    I commit to reading the texts you recommend, but am not sure how that will change my behaviour. If you accept the premise that “learning” should lead to “changed behaviour”.

    I guess the crux of this for me, and probably other low tolerators, is two fold.

    Ambiguity isn’t clear, SO
    Until it is I will work on the tent. I am more comfortable there anyway.

    None of the above should be confused with a non acceptance on my part of the existence of the “tent” and “Lewis & Clarke” style critical issue – in fact it is quite the opposite. I heartily agree and accept. I am simply seeking a little sympathy from the high tolerators for those of us who struggle with concept.

    In closing Max, it is quite well known that my joining Panthers two weeks out from the 1991 Grand Final is the primary reason the Club won it. It is well known because I have been pushing that barrow since mid October 91.

    Having therefore established a history of taking unwarranted credit, I am happy to continue the trend by accepting credit for Michael Gerber’s “What good looks like”. Whilst deeply appreciative of the recognition, I make the point that excessive use does not necessarily mean creation – otherwise we could believe, after Beijing, that Michael Phelps wrote the American National Anthem.

    Love your work, mate.

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