With the world continuing to change at an ever-increasing pace, small-business owners must be fast on their feet and able to respond to constant uncertainty. That often means being comfortable navigating an ambiguous course, which, for many business owners, is an extremely uncomfortable notion.
“All small-business owners today must exhibit the ability to be comfortable with ambiguity,” says leadership coach Robert C. McMillan, author of The Next Gen Leader: Cutting Edge Strategies to Make You the Leader You Were Born to Be. “Embracing ambiguity is especially critical for your company’s chief security officer (CSO), whose role tends to evolve rapidly and requires an extraordinary ability to embrace an uncertain future.”
Areas of Ambiguity
What’s the most ambiguous area of business for many small-business owners? It’s technology, by far, says Patrick Stroh, a principal at Mercury Business Advisors and the author of Business Strategy: Plan, Execute, Win! “The changes in the area of technology continue to be exponential, and this is especially true when it comes to social media,” Stroh says. “Think how we’ve gone from annual client satisfaction surveys to daily customer input via social media.”
Seems just when you figure out how to navigate a social media site and how to best market your business there, along comes a a new platform to learn and a new way of doing things.
Product sourcing is another task that's no longer cut and dried. Long gone are the days of automatically sourcing and procuring products and services from known entities across town. As Stroh says, “Anyone can go to China and get low-cost manufacturing done today. Likewise, just about anyone can put up a website and sell all over the world. Not too long ago, global options weren’t as accessible as they are now, and that shift in the landscape has created competitive ambiguity.”
When the entire world is your oyster, it's hard to know where to procure your products and even where to sell. And when you do decide where to buy your products and which target markets you'd like to sell them to, any initial uncertainties you may have had can linger.
Gone also are the days of the traditional business model that consisted of a predictable status quo when it came to leadership, McMillan says. “Leadership is no longer hierarchical titles or control and command," he explains. "Those are ‘old age,’ traditional definitions that, while once predictable and stable, are now virtually nonexistent. Instead, today’s small-business owners must evolve as swiftly as the business world and constantly changing market conditions, and that means as leaders, getting comfortable being uncomfortable.”
A Tool for Innovation
Not surprisingly, it’s the small-business owners who learn to navigate and even embrace ambiguity that are thriving in today’s constantly evolving business climate. “Every business owner needs to be comfortable with a fast-paced environment where they'll have to make decisions with imperfect information to stay on top of, or even ahead of the game,” Stroh says. “If they wait for perfect information, they'll be left behind. One of the main advantages of ambiguity is the fact that it pushes you to innovate and experiment.”
Savvy small-business owners recognize that uncertainty is a friend, not a foe, agrees McMillan. “As small-business owners change with the times, these next generation leaders thrive because of ambiguity, because they know that it harbors clues as to what the future holds.”
Small-business owners who can decipher the ambiguity code and transform it into a formula for success will excel in today’s business climate, McMillan asserts. And the good news is, he adds, “The higher the ambiguity, generally the greater the market opportunity.”
So how can you make the most of ambiguity? Here are five things to take to heart:
Accept that there's only one certainty. Change is the only certainty in today’s business climate. When you take this fact to heart, you become more comfortable with the inevitable and are better able to confront each day’s changing landscape.
Avoid over-controlling. While keeping things in line is definitely necessary, try not to micromanage every aspect of your business. That way, when ambiguity appears—as it always does—you won’t find yourself stressed out but instead, you'll be prepared for the uncertainty.
Know you’re in good company. The world’s best minds welcome ambiguity. Without uncertainty and the resulting questions, innovation and discovery would be impossible, and we wouldn’t have all the insightful inventions that we have now.
Challenge conventional wisdom. If you’re doing something a certain way “just because” and there's no clear-cut reason why, this should be your cue that the practice is most likely outdated and ineffective. Explore all the possibilities, then decide for yourself which route to take, realizing that you may come to a completely different conclusion next time.
Manage your stress. No matter how open you are to ambiguity, uncertainty causes stress. It helps to strike a healthy work-life balance so you have the inner reserves to draw from when constant change throws you off balance.
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