Skillfully navigating through the unknown isn’t a gift reserved for a select few, it’s a learnable, acquirable skill. But you need a clear framework for leaders to assess what’s being impacted and what’s driving decision-paralysis or impulsiveness – a framework that enables them to reframe the situation and adapt to make the most productive decision, and unlock new opportunities.


  • Adaptability at Work is Hard: Our Brain Explained
  • Developing an Adaptable Mindset that Thrives in Ambiguity
  • 3 Steps to Being Adaptable in the Workplace
  • Partnering Effectively is Essential to System-wide Adaptability in the Workplace

Adaptability at Work is Hard: Our Brain Explained

Ambiguity is a certainty these days. The pace of change, instability of markets, and ongoing advancement of disruptive technologies generate more ambiguity, not less. Your organization’s ability to adapt is essential to your success.

And yet, those very conditions reduce your brain’s ability to adapt to new situations and process new information. Unknown outcomes and unexpected challenges cause many to become more rigid, not less. Just when it matters most, adaptability in the workplace is hard. Our brains favour the familiarity and simplicity of following the well-worn paths of yesterday.

That’s why ambiguity and uncertainty have such a dramatic impact on strategic decision-making, employee performance, team cohesion, and ultimately whether your organization can rise to meet tomorrow’s challenges.

Netflix vs. Blockbuster: A Modern Day David & Goliath

Through the 1990s, Blockbuster was the unchallenged video rental giant. In 2000, they literally laughed off the option to purchase Netflix for a cool $50 million. By 2007 a startling revenue gap drove them back to their old, tried and true model as they reinstated late fees. The result? In 2010, Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy. Adaptability is hard.

Yet, while we recognize how essential it is to remain adaptable at work, we’ve often rewarded and promoted those who’ve excelled at removing ambiguity and uncertainty from the ecosystem. That bias has sometimes caused us to overlook those who are capable of thriving in it. This can result in leaders and teams whose ability to adapt gets short-circuited by ambiguity. Consider these three responses:

  • Flight (Resisting Change): “In these uncertain times, our priority is to focus on our core products and trusted strategies. Things will turn back our way.”
  • Freeze (Decision Paralysis): “The current situation is complex. We need to analyze all possible outcomes before committing to a decision. Let’s form a committee.”
  • Fight (Knee-jerk Reactions): “We can’t afford to wait. Yes, the situation is unclear, but we must act now! Let’s implement new strategies immediately.”

These reactions make sense when we consider how our brains work. While extraordinary and extraordinarily complex (there are more synapses in your brain than stars in the milky way), your brain’s most essential function is to keep you around to see another day. It does this by regulating the function of your body and by guessing whether the person, thing or situation in front of you is a threat or an opportunity. Because the higher, executive functions of the brain are so metabolically expensive, it favours efficiency, which equates to a primal ‘simplicity = good, ambiguity = bad.’

Ambiguity challenges this preference for simplicity by presenting multiple options and outcomes. All that complexity demands we fire up our executive function, that fuel-guzzling, 8-cylinder powerhouse of an engine nestled in our craniums. When we feel threatened or overwhelmed by complexity, it’s easier to resist or ignore ambiguous situations. We oversimplify, overlook, or overreact, acting on flawed, incomplete conclusions and missing out on hidden opportunities.

Leading in Ambiguity Webinar - April 29. 2024

Developing an Adaptable Mindset that Thrives in Ambiguity

Great leaders reduce unnecessary ambiguity by communicating effectively. But ambiguity is here to stay, and it doesn’t need to be the villain. While there may not be a way out, there is a way to thrive IN ambiguity. Ambiguous situations, handled skillfully, can become catalysts for growth, innovation, opportunity, and development. Even better, skillfully navigating through the unknown isn’t an innate gift; it’s an acquirable skill.

The sweet spot between predictability and the adventure of the unknown

Most people love the thrill of unwrapping a gift. Not knowing what’s inside the box is essential to creating that intoxicating sense of possibility. When we perceive a hidden opportunity in an ambiguous situation, our brain is primed for the possibility of reward. Our senses sharpen, creativity flows, and our brain gears up to capitalize on the opportunity and seize the moment.

Adaptability in the workplace becomes essential when we find ourselves in ambiguous situations that force us out of our sweet spot. When the tension between the known and the unknown pushes past our comfort zone, reactivity, defensiveness, and rigid thinking can soon result. But the thing about our sweet spot is that it’s not static. It can be flexed. The key to remaining adaptable at work is teachability, malleability, and curiosity. When we can stay curious and open in the face of uncertainty, ambiguity can become the springboard out of the status quo and into possibility.

3 Steps to Being Adaptable in the Workplace

So, how do we stay flexible under pressure? By cultivating a mindset that gets clear on what matters most and explores what’s possible before forging a way forward into the unknown.

1.  The 5C Framework: Connect On What Matters Most

When ambiguity threatens what matters most, it can trigger performance-crippling alarms, resulting in unsavory outcomes.  The first thing that we start to lose is our ability to think with nuance and objectivity. Retaining full access to our faculties is the first step to maintaining an adaptable, resilient mindset. We’ve identified a 5C Framework to help get clear on what matters most:

  • Cohesiveness – Is belonging/connection at risk?
  • Clarity – Is there missing data/information?
  • Choice – Are there options? Will I be trapped?
  • Confidence – Is there a way to win or is this a lost cause?
  • Coherence – What’s the big picture?

Simply identifying which “C” is most impacted by ambiguity increases your capacity to stay open and adaptable. Acknowledging the emotional impact of the situation provides a helpful container for those emotions and sends a calming signal into the region of your brain tasked with determining threat or opportunity. This in turn stems the release of the stress chemicals, enabling you to leave catastrophizing behind and move towards possibility-thinking.

2. Explore What’s Possible

Once we’re clear on what matters most, it’s time to identify the specific, observable facts of the situation. Objectivity makes clear what the building blocks of possibility are. Having named the facts we can begin exploring connections between them, filling in the blanks in new and interesting ways. We start to perceive not only potential threats but also the possibilities of rewards and opportunities.

3. Co-create a Path to Progress

Reassessing the situation, identifying clearly what we know (facts) and what we don’t know (beliefs and assumptions) allows us to consider options. We’ve now done the work necessary to prepare us for a powerful set of questions to get our adaptability game on.

  • What matters most to you in this situation?
  • What’s getting in the way of that?
  • What’s actually possible here?
  • What would you offer to someone in the same situation?
  • What’s the very next, logical step you can take to get what you need?

Partnering Effectively is Essential to System-wide Adaptability in the Workplace

Here’s the powerful reality: Whether we are leading a team, part of a team or an individual contributor, we don’t have to go it alone. By effectively Partnering, we can spot rigidity growing in response to the unknown, and can deploy tools and mindsets to get back to adaptability. When we spot it in others, whether colleagues, direct reports, or even our leaders, we can ask powerful questions and hold out for their highest good and that of the organization.

All of this enables us to partner intelligently for adaptability, equipping us to acknowledge the impacts of ambiguity while keeping them out of the driver’s seat. When we can effectively lead ourselves and others, strategically providing support where it matters most, and effectively challenging the status quo with surgical precision, we can boldly step into tomorrow’s unknown challenges with confidence.

Turn Ambuiguity into a Strategic Advantage for Innovation & Growth

In a world characterized by perpetual change and evolving priorities, ambiguity can become a disruptive force, compromising our core objectives and triggering impulsive reactions that hinder productivity, performance and decision-making. Our Leading in Ambiguity Training Program empowers leaders to adeptly navigate uncertainty and develop the strategic compass to guide individuals and teams towards sustained productivity and performance through times of change. The program equips leaders with practical strategies and tools to not just endure ambiguity but harness its potential for growth.