Why Confusion — Not Clarity — Signals Change

How Organizations Can Successfully Evolve Through Intentional Ambiguity

As more and more industries and organizations find themselves being disrupted by technology, the need to change business models, strategies, skill sets, processes and mindset becomes more and more critical to success, if not survival.

For the past two decades, change management approaches and techniques have involved a flurry of cookie-cutter check-lists designed to offer comfort and an idealistic view to leaders and managers challenged with disrupting the status quo.

But what have we truly learned through this tumultuous time?

Well, fully two-thirds of change efforts don’t attain the goals and results sought. While, for the most part, human beings often resist change, the fact is, what they really fight off is the lack of commitment and consistency necessary to believe in the effort.

Further, the need for clarity around change cited by consultants to gain buy-in is actually a deterrent to achievement.

But, how can that be?  As communicators, we preach that clarity is essential to trust and alignment of organizational objectives and imperatives.  Having close to 25 years in guiding organizations through change via strategic communications, I’ve found that confusion not clarity has more impact on changing behaviors.  Confusion, in the form of new operating structures, new reporting lines, new responsibilities, and new decision-making models, forces people to readjust their perspective. Clarity, on the other hand, reinforces current behavior and allows people to find ways to work around the system.

The most recent example: Ford.  As the poster child of an industry under siege, Ford is attempting to design a more fluid, progressive business as it gears up for a complete transformation of its century old industry, one that is technologically driven vs. engineering based. When the board ousted CEO Mark Fields, citing a lack of strategy and a depressed stock price, new CEO Jim Hackett went to work implementing a new operating and decision-making structure. The new model increases responsibilities among key executives, reduces the amount of direct reports at the senior level, and reshuffles key parts of the business.

The initial take-away: A lot of confusion about who does what and where things fall.

The intended result:  Executives must now figure out this new world order and forge relationships to achieve their goals or risk demotion, or even dismissal.

Rather than a neat, tidy picture of the future, complete with PowerPoints, visuals, and motivational phrases (e.g. “One Team, One Mission”, “Creating the Future Together”), Ford is upending its leadership system to force the change necessary to sustain the enterprise.

This is not just a new organizational chart.  It’s a purposeful way to force people to leave their comfort zones and wade through the confusion so they can find purpose and create value.

Will it work? Only time will tell, but spending valuable resources on a vision statement, new logo, business strategy, narrative, etc. – without first putting people in a position where they must shift their thinking and learn to operate collaboratively— would most definitely have had a negative and possibly fatal result!

Change is about understanding human behavior.  Strategic Communications is about connecting ideas and people in a mutually beneficial manner.  Recognizing how the two intersect to create a strong proximate objective – Confusion – pushes people to venture into unexplored areas resulting in the very change in thinking and actions being sought.

Gary Grates
Gary Grates
Principal