Getting stuck in the way we are thinking is like finding ourselves in quicksand; applying our habits and routines just makes things worse.
I want to describe four categories of organizational quicksand. Each category represents a routine mode of translating thinking into action. The four modes emerge from comparing and contrasting two dimensions of an organization’s decision-making culture: An organization’s tolerance for ambiguity and an organization’s influence style.
The first dimension describes the organization’s tolerance for ambiguity. An organization has a low tolerance for ambiguity when it sees ambiguous situations as threatening or stressful. An organization with high tolerance for ambiguity prefers situations with multiple and sometimes contradictory interpretations. A low tolerance for ambiguity culture seeks a concrete answer and sticks to it. In a high tolerance for ambiguity culture one often hears people say, “it depends.”
The second dimension describes the organization’s preferred influence style. The influence style dimensions represent a continuum of receptivity to the opinions of others. I refer to low receptivity to the opinions of others as a “persuasive” style. I refer to high receptivity to the opinion of others as an “alignment” style. Exchanges of strongly held viewpoints characterize persuasive cultures. Listening, questions and high involvement characterize alignment cultures.
For the last several years, I have been paying attention to how ambiguity tolerance and influence style characterize the way people in organizations think together. I want to describe four of my client organizations, each one emblematic of one of the four categories. Like many habits that have become traps in times of change, it’s easy to see how the modes of translating thinking into action served each organization well. Now, the modes of thinking have become a type of quicksand making it hard for each organization to adapt.
The “Operate” mode influences by persuasion and has a low tolerance for ambiguity. The operate style describes well a global technology company that I have been working with for over ten years. The company prides itself on having an entrepreneurial culture despite its size and scope. Leaders in the company think fast and act fast; weighing alternatives just slows things down. Leaders in this company don’t engage in dialogue about ideas, they “pitch” ideas to each other and make deals in order to move things forward. The operate mode turns to quicksand when leaders need to question their assumptions and collaborate in new ways with their employees and customers.
The “Regulate” mode influences by alignment and has a low tolerance for ambiguity. The regulate style aligns through systems, rules, regulations and procedures. I have a long-standing relationship with a multi-national engineering and construction company. Leaders in this company tend to have backgrounds in civil, mechanical and chemical engineering. There are clearly delineated ways of doing things, which has made the company reliable and a safe bet for customers who are making big investments in complicated projects. The regulate mode turns to quicksand when leaders resist experimenting with innovative ideas.
The “Relate” mode influences by alignment and has a high tolerance for ambiguity. The relate style values inclusion and involvement, diversity is seen as strength and success often emerges organically by leveraging opportunities. I work with a global retailer that has a distinctive buying model, which mirrors its distinctive culture. Leaders in this company listen to each other and to their customers and suppliers. They avoid codifying procedures preferring to stay attentive to opportunity. The lack of routine makes it hard for relate-mode organizations to develop key talent. The relate mode turns to quicksand when becoming distracted by new possibilities competes with a need for strategic focus.
The “Debate” mode influences by persuasion and has a high tolerance for ambiguity. Spending time in a debate mode culture often feels like being at an academic conference. I work with a materials science company that manufactures a variety of products, which feature various applications of their proprietary materials. The organization values expertise while rejecting authority as a basis for decision making. The most compelling point-of-view supported by the best logic and data wins the day. The debate mode turns to quicksand when circumstances require a rapid response without making time to consider everyone’s opinion.
Each of these organizations has been successful because of their respective cultures. Today, each of these organizations senses the need to adapt to changing market conditions and an unfamiliar competitive landscape. Applying comfortable modes of translating thinking to action can be counterproductive when the ground that once provided a firm foundation for decision making starts to shift under our feet.