Staying With the Unknown

My Israel-based organization development colleague Allon Shevat wrote that the most important skill for an OD practitioner is the ability to stay with the unknown.

Here is an excerpt of his note: "...we can't cope well with ambiguity. I was trained on the knees of the Tavistock model which helped me more than almost anything else to navigate well through unknown complexity. If you want to add to what else helps to deal with ambiguity, then delve into eastern belief systems, live in a country that lost an empire like the UK, or come to Tel Aviv for a week."

Paraphrasing him, the most important skill for an OD practitioner is the ability to navigate and cope with complexity, the unknown, and the ambiguous. Or as Allon said, to stay with the unknown.

Amen to that.

When I think back to my earliest OD training, as an undergrad in the Human Communication Interaction Lab at Rutgers, that was my number one learning.

My gurus were masters at the unknown and ambiguous. Their standard answer when we would come to them begging for answers was, "Figure it out."

I can still remember hearing myself say, when people would ask me what I am majoring in, "Not knowing."

In today's organizational world, this is an especially vital capacity. The ability to tolerate ambiguity, to trust, to hold the questions, to go with the flow, to listen and observe, to be patient, to deepen appreciation for the mystery in life, to cultivate mindfulness.

What do you think? How important is this competency in your view?

Posted on Tuesday November 13, 2012 by Terrence Seamon


Anonymous said…
for me NOW this competency is very important.
In the history there are some "fad" periods, and now the fad-pendulum is completed moved on one side. We are living in a positivistic era, where the only accepted paradigm is the engineering vision of life. This approach in the recent history has made some good results, but it isn't enough: we miss a lot of components of the reality! So is better to move the pendulum towards a central position.
Terrence Seamon said…
Ciao Giovane. Thanks for commenting!
Eric Johnson said…
For me, this competency has been developed over many years of facilitating groups and change. I cope well with ambiguity and the unknown, but the real challenge is not how I cope with it but with how my clients and peers accept it. They want answers and clear outcomes, not processes and emergence of change. They want everything tracked on a spreadsheet so they can have the perception of control. Talking with them about this subject glazes eyes and puts them off. How do you deal with this with clients and peers who want clear answers and the perception of control?
Luc Galoppin said…
Hi Terry - love this article.
Resonates with one that I have blogged a few weeks ago:
Terrence Seamon said…
Eric and Luc, Thank you both for commenting.

Eric, You are so right about clients wanting certainty and control. The truth is (as we in OD know) these are illusory. Look no further than the recent hurricane that clobbered my home state of NJ. Who was in control? Mother Nature.

Luc, Your posting is very resonant with mine! Great minds thinking alike, I'd say.
Andy Phillips said…
Being comfortable with ambiguity is to me not just a necessary OD skill but essential for all managers. We all need to be able to operate with just half the picture.

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