Get into the not-knowing
One of the interesting aspects of art is the ability to get into the not-knowing. In every discipline of art an artist tries to give the audience a new insight, whether this perspective is driven by esthetical, political, social or philosophical motivation. By means of techniques and material, the artist shapes an expression with the potential to arouse the audience emotionally.
You might find a piece of art beautiful or ugly, attractive or disrupting, recognizable or weird; we all respond to a piece of art in a different way by making sense out of it. Sensemaking and responding to art looks a lot like the sensemaking process when we respond to the experiences in our work. When we experience our organization in transformation, we find ourselves in the same kind of state of ambiguity.
Ambiguity in art
Ambiguity is a state of being uncertain. Ambiguity refers to a situation in which something has more than one possible meaning and may therefore cause confusion and possibilities for transformation.
In art we find many examples of ambiguity. One famous ambiguous painting we all know is The Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vincy. People still wonder: is she smiling, is she sad or both?
Pop music can also give rise to ambiguity. In 2015 The Guardian presented a top 10 of ambiguous pop songs. The Guardian: “But perhaps the most famous political example of misappropriation is Bruce Springsteen’s born in the USA, from 1984, used by the Ronald Reagan bandwagon as a patriotic song of American pride, when it is really a bitter cri de coeur about the shameful treatment of Vietnam veterans. .
Jazz is well known as an ambiguous kind of music because of the improvisational character. Herbie Hancock tells us in a lovely video a story about a performance of So What! with Miles Davis during de early sixties. When Herbie Hancock thought he made a mistake, Miles Davis thought it was a suggestion that just happened in the moment. A failure became an idea.
Improvisation in jazz looks a lot like improvisation in theatre. Improvisation theatre is about making something out of absolutely nothing. From the start the actors find their way in shaping by interaction – acting – accepting – reacting.
Ambiguity in organization
In our organizations we sometimes seek for ambiguity. From an agile innovative perspective, being creative involves challenge and ambiguity. When we innovate, the creative process is a type of quest in which we deal with uncertainty. By being aware and understanding the emotions involved in creative work can provide valuable insights.
These insights can be of great significance when applied to the challenges in our work. A returning involvement in creative work and experience with the processes involved can be a knowledge that can be transferred to working with other kinds of developmental work that requires a creative approach, process experience and understanding.
Even when we are not seeking intentionally for ambiguity, there are complex issues and wicked questions. In these questions and issues, we may recognize that many systems and aspects of systems are inherently ambiguous. To attempt to constrain those ambiguities into neat and tidy ordered categories represents a potentially catastrophic mistake. The way you handle conflict and uncertainty is not to reduce ambiguity but to recognize it. That means if the situation is complex, you allow any coherent idea the space and investment to run a safe-fail experiment. The system can only be understood by interacting with it.
How to recognize ambiguity in organizations?
Here we present 12 guidelines for recognizing ambiguity in organizations. Inspired by art these 12 guidelines are described as part of the ambiguity bingo card.
The means to realize the epic theater, as developed by Bertolt Brecht (1898 - 1956). The purpose of the alienation is to make the familiar unfamiliar. To cause a shock and to place the social situation in another (according to Brecht more accurate) light. He tried to achieve this by means of distance-creating techniques, called alienation effects. For example, the actor may no longer identify himself with his role but must demonstrate it rationally to the audience.
This kind of meta-skill is very common individually when we “take a step back and see what is happening”. In organizations we can feel the need for stepping back making sense of the situation. This need is recognized when some incidents occur, and you are dealing with a conflict. “What is happening?” In apparently steady situations it is very useful to make transparent what people in the organization observe. During retrospectives in team you might start with the question: what have you observed during the last sprint? In both examples, people take deliberate action to postpone judgment and have a more rational detached conversation.
This kind of ambiguity we find a lot in art and in our daily lives. So often that we rarely notice it. Giving space in art is about giving the others, the audience, room for interpretation and action. The artist does not fill it in. In movie and theatre, we recognize this way of interaction when we must work as we are watching. We try to figure out how we feel about the actors, how we identify ourselves with their roles. We empathize with the actor, just like when we interpret an abstract painting or a a poem.
Giving space often happens when we meet our colleagues in the morning at the office: “What’s up?”, “How are you doing?” or “How was your week-end?”. In meetings you can notice people who ask strong questions that give way to a fruitful dialogue. Just like in art, we give space in our organizations by not filling in and make each other work to give meaning. Agile is not agile before we had an open conversation about our interpretations of it and how we feel about it. .
Sometimes art is just made in times when the artist is disturbed, dealing with conflicting feelings, and fully into the not-knowing. Performing art can have such an impact. Like the Peanut Floor by Wim T. Schippers. In Museum Booymans van Beuning in Rotterdam the Peanut Butter Floor was exposed in 2010.
Why peanut butter on the floor? What is the meaning of it? There is no reason upfront! Noise just disrupts people.
Nowadays we talk about disruptive technologies. Internet can be seen as a giant peanut butter floor. No one could imagine the impact of the Wide World Web at first. Noise in organizations is about ‘the elephant in the room’, it’s beneath the surface, out of our conversations, waiting to be addressed. And when we speak about it, it’s like the famous speech in the movie Festen.
There are a lot of meetings and situations in which we don’t say what is really happening. The situation creates the uncomfortable feeling of an peanut butter floor.
In literature and poems, you will find this kind of ambiguity a lot. The combination of two opposite words referring to a situation gives some interesting tension. For example in the poem Abnyon lived in a pretty how town by E.E Cummings we find:
someones married their everyones laughed their cryings and did their dance (sleep wake hope and then) they said their nevers they slept their dream
Do you recognize the tension between someones and everyones, laughed and cryings, nevers and hope? In organizations, when we envision the future for example, we might say ambiguous things like:
“we need our experience to be innovative” (experience versus innovative)
“people make things better” (people versus things).
But also rituals like “gatherings with drinks and snacks “and “health programs with sports” can refer to an organization where it is nice to be amongst your colleagues.
The metaphor is a strong technique often used in artistic expressions. Shakespeare uses metaphor in a very sophisticated way like this phrase:
bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
While visualizing singing birds in the threes, a cathedral comes to mind. Metaphor is everywhere, because we communicate in metaphor. In dance we dance like a bird or like a cat and both movements are easily recognized. Radiohead sings in Creep
You're just like an angel Your skin makes me cry You float like a feather
As human beings we communicate in metaphors. What are the most used (perhaps winning) metaphors in your organization. Are good performing employees compared with ‘superheroes’? Is the need for transforming the business as the Titanic? Are we ‘going Agile’ like a journey? Look and listen around and you will find many metaphors.
We already mentioned the ambiguity in the painting The Mona Lisa. Just like The Mona Lisa, sometimes the expression in a piece of art can be seen in two different ways. Think of those drawings in which you can see the old woman or the young lady. Some of us see one image, some see the other. Only a few see directly both images. A more dynamic example is The spinning dancer. Does she turn clockwise or counterclockwise? You probably have to look closely to see both. It all depends on the perspective you take; is she standing on her right or on her left leg?
In our daily work at the office we watch a lot of movements and images that we interpret with our own bias. A frown can be interpreted in a range of emotions: are they angry, concerned, or focused? When somebody walks out of the meeting without saying a word, what does it mean? There are a lot of spinning dancers at the workplace! An example I would like to share is about colleagues who give presentations during an Agile planning event. The event starts with an energizer and most of the participants join in. Only some of them stay behind and do not participate in the exercise. Are they not able to participate, are they unwilling, are they upset, are they uncomfortable, are they… not agile enough? When I took a closer look there were at least two views. One: being agile means being playful and that means we do all kinds of funny creative stuff to ignite ourselves. And two: being agile means being disciplined and that also means we are critical about the way we spent our time on serious matter.
So, in the same room two perspectives can be seen without words. When you go to a meeting which sides of the spinning dancer are in the room?
New meaning by acting
On stage when two actors improvise, when a new line of thought occurs out of nowhere, the resulting storyline can surprise the audience as well as the actors. In “De vloer op”, a Dutch television program in which two actors improvise on a conflict, you will find many changes in the play.
In our work we can speak about gamechangers, situations that come along with a new fresh perspective that changes the relative position of two actors in an instance. More common in our daily work we can find ourselves discussing an issue and the association suddenly leads us to a new area of insight. Together this line of improvisational thought proceeds and is not stopped. Somehow you feel uncomfortable. Do you trust or distrust the situation? Are you having fun or are you feeling annoyed?
Double listening is like the spinning dancer, but now we experience ambiguity by what we hear. When you hear a song in a foreign language, it’s possible you hear bits and pieces of the song in your native language. Sometimes you interpret funny phrases. Last year we had an ambiguity about what we people hear Laurel or Yanny?
In organizations, especially when you’re new or from outside the organization, people use abbreviations and words you never heard of. A different interpretation is possible. When Management Teams go outside, they usually call these days a ‘heidag’ (literally heather day). When one of the members of a Management Team said in the autumn they had a ‘bosdag’ (forest day), the mistake was made by thinking the management team went outside in a nice place in a forest. The manager looked a little bit confused and said, “okay no, it’s just her at the office”. Another story is about an architect who held a presentation about SOA. In his domain an acronym for Service Oriented Architecture. The audience thought he did something in creating a sexually transmitted disease. (Note: SOA is the Dutch abbreviation for STD.)
A double entendre is French for a figure of speech or a way of wording that is devised to be understood in two ways, or having a double meaning. Typically, one of the meanings is obvious, given the context, whereas the other may require more thought. They often exploit ambiguity and may be used to introduce it deliberately in a text.
The Album Lazarus by David Bowie is full of double entendre. Already before the audience knew Bowie would die, he released the song Blackstar. Blackstar also refers to cancer. “I am a Blackstar” Bowie sings. And in Dollar Days:
“I’m dying too Push their backs against the grain And fool them all again and again”.
In the play The Importance of being Earnest Oscar Wilde gave several hints to his hidden homosexuality. In organizations there are several rituals we create to give double meaning or became cliché. A kick-off for a project for instance is intended to start the project as a team together. It is most of the time a joyous gathering full of hope and ambition. At the same time everyone knows that next day they have to deal with accountability and roles and procedures and obligations and complex issues. So what kicks? When there is a reorganization and your colleagues get fired and you are still in, you might feel lucky about you staying and at the same time feel guilty about this feeling because others are gone. Perhaps you are also anxious about your future possibilities: you might be next to leave the organization. So what means “fired”?
Two words within context that are opposites expose a fundamental division in the artist’s mind. Examples are “Many great people have died, do their ideas may live” and “We are an organization for young and old, men and women, buniness and arts, war and peace.”
This kind of ambiguity is different from opposites combined. This ambiguity refers to the tension that creates a new idea or a new resolution. When contradictions are presented we articulate the tension. In art we may recognize contradictions in expression: loud – soft, colorful – grey, fast – slow, structured – loose, smooth – rough, small – big.
I overheard a podcast about the play Caligula by Albert Camus. This play explores the contradictions in values. Caligula is the story of a superior suicide. It is the story of the most human and the most tragic of errors. Unfaithful to man, loyal to himself, Caligula consents to die for having understood that no one can save himself all alone and that one cannot be free in opposition to other men.
Another example we find in the change of character by David Bowie. During the early seventies Bowie performed his new creation “Ziggy Stardust”. Ziggy became an omnisexual alien rock star, sent to Earth as a messenger. Bowie’s plot, loosely, was that humanity was in its final five years of existence, and Ziggy was dispatched to deliver a message of hope and love. Then after Bowie’s own addiction to cocaine during his time in L.A. he created “The thin White Duke” representing the dark side of Bowie and mankind, including an adoration for fascism as can be seen in the documentary about The Thin White Duke and the album Station To Station: :
In organization we find all kinds of contradictions. People who are fired, grow. Departments are split and merged in new combination to find a new identity. Requirements of software become obsolete while new functionality becomes available. Introducing AI, machine learning and dealing with privacy issues and questioning future work. “The old” and “the new” is perhaps nowadays a vital contradiction.
Geneploration brings generative and explorative thinking together. It’s about the creative process that brings suddenly and unexpectedly a “Eureka!” moment. During a generative phase, much of the thinking is done unconsciously, while the exploratory phase is a conscious process.
Geneploration is the process of constantly flipping from unconscious to conscious and vice versa in an optimum state. When we are in connection with art – whether it is a sculpture, a painting, a roman, a poem, a dance, a movie, a play or music – we can switch between these two states. It’s the same kind of switching an artist experiences when shaping the art. Geneploration is about sensemaking while shaping and shaping while sensemaking. This creative process also goes on when people deliberately pay attention to art. It is a focused concentration, a mindful awareness, of what is going on in mind and body while sensemaking and shaping takes place.
Geneploration is rare at the workplace. Even when we have a ‘brainstorming’ we are not as focused and concentrated as the state of shaping and sensemaking we refer to. Sometimes, however, there is that moment after gathering where you might say ‘Wow! That was magic. That was a good meeting! We really made a giant step together!” Although you might not control the geneploration happening, there are some factors that have a positive impact:
shared felt need for getting away from the current state
creating a holding environment or container, in which it is safe to fail and safe to interact with each other
exercises to help the group to get in a state of focused awareness
create an atmosphere of constant curiosity and questioning. A non-judgmental phase must be stretched as long as possible.
Need for rebels
What do we recognize as the most interesting art ever made? Take a moment to consider some pieces of art and ask yourself how people saw these artists during their time. Most of them were seen as provocative. These great artists gave new and disturbing insights that changed the way we give meaning to our world. Vincent van Gogh, Salvador Sali, Bertold Brecht, Strawinski, Pina Bausch, Mozart, Virgina Woolf, James Joyce, Franz Joseph Kafka, they all have in common that they gave us a new perspective to our world and life. Their work was not appreciated once during their life. Most of them died poor, even though their work is now recognized as something of high value.
In organizations we also need people who have the courage to speak out en make us see from another perspective. They are the rebels in our organization who seek for the truth. They give us a new perspective on our work. Whenever we feel the need to be rebellious or we admire a dissonant from one of our colleagues, we are now dealing with ambiguity.
What is the use of diagnosing ambiguity in organizations? Foremost: not to ignore complex situations. We experience more complexity because of the combination of a) lot of people need to be involved in decision-making b) de issues we are dealing with are not ordered. So problem-solving is increasingly not linear. At the same time, we are managing complex situations to many times as a straight forward issue. That kind of management is at the best frustrating and at the worst catastrophic. When you are not managing the problem properly you experience ambiguity. Diagnosingambiguity is a signal to as you self the question: Am i handling the problem als a craftsman using tecniques foir an oredred problem or shouls I act as an artist an het into th enot-knowing? If dealing with complexity, other techniques like Deep democracy, Cognitive Edge,, Scrum and agile tools become much more valid.
Can you recognize the ambiguity in your organization? Let's find out! Her beneath you can download the Ambiguity Bingo Card (ABC). Observe your organization as a piece of art and see if you experience one of the twelve ambiguities. Like to hear from your experiences! BINGO!
Downloads and references
Ambiguity Bingo Card (ABC): download
Guardian: readers recommend songs that aren't what they seem ambiguous misunderstood: article
Seven Types of Ambiguity: A film on William Empson: video
Tolerating ambiguity -- being OK with not knowing! | Miriam Giguere | TEDxSoleburySchoo : video
Deep Democracy: info
Cognitive Edge: info
Geneplore Model: info