In science and management it is a virtue to be truthful and fair. To be a good scientist or manager it requires decision making and communcation to be clear and specific. Ambiguity (that can be described as “not having a single clear meaning”) is not a term that seems to relate positively to this virtue. However there is a growing understanding that in situations where there are multiple and contradicting goals it might be more pragmatic to avoid being too clear and specific. Ambiguity can be useful to create common ground on sensitive topics or it can help in finding consensus on controversial topics or allows flexibility in crisis situations.
In strategic management there are several practices of ambiguity that can be identified to create more participation and commitment in complex situation, such as:
- Equivocal language: by using vague words or removing complete details;
- Inflation: where slightly exaggerated ideas are used;
- Postponement: where controversions are left open;
- Preservation of rights to participate in the future;
- Equivocal commitment: when participants sign a commitment and can add conditions.
In working together with different stakeholders on sustainability and open innovation, strategic ambiguity can be a meaningful instrument to use. Strategic ambiguity is of course ambiguous as well as the term itself suggests, because it can also have negative effects. The lack of clarity can also reduce trust, especially where previously the management style was very clear and specific. Further it can lead to false consensus in decision making leading to delayed tensions and even active resistance. Ambiguity should therefore be practiced in a responsible and ethical fashion.
Scandelius, C., & Cohen, G. (2016, in press, corrected proof). Achieving collaboration with diverse stakeholders—The role of strategic ambiguity in CSR communication. Journal of Business Research.
Photo credit: Nathan Gibbs Embracing Ambiguity, Flickr
3 thoughts on “How strategic ambiguity can contribute to sustainability and innovation”
Yes, ambiguity consciously and intelligently used can be a powerful weapon in the hands of creator of the ambiguity. While extreme ambiguity can generate fresh innovative ideas, in modern world clarity is a rarity, ambiguity rules.
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I don’t feel strategy should be ambiguous in any way, shape or form. Certainly there needs to be an appreciation of the politics de jour but any strategy needs to be clear, focused and definitely unambiguous. This is not negotiable
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Thanks Tim, I agree, but in certain circumstances where different stakeholders are involved there is a growing evidence in practice and science that ambiguity can be helpful. It is in my opinion not meant as a long term strategy.