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Over at his blog at HBR, Scott Anthony suggests that a better way to identify future leaders in a company is to provide the brightest stars with smaller, more ambiguous challenges instead of larger, but familiar, assignments:

Instead of giving up-and-comers larger assignments, consider intentionally giving them smaller, more ambiguous ones. Have them crack into a new geographic market. Ask them to lead the development of a completely new business model. Force them to think creatively about how they will access or assemble the resources to solve the challenge.

Facing highly ambiguous challenges will help managers develop a set of tools that prepare them for the uncertainties they will increasingly encounter as they ascend up the corporate ladder.

I think Anthony is right that future leaders will face the “the new normal” of constant change.  However, his solution rests on an unacknowledged assumption: people can simply be trained to better adapt to ambiguity.

It is certainly possible to learn certain skills that may make one more efficient dealing with an ambiguous environment, but it is much harder to re-wire people so that they become more comfortable with a less structured environment.  Certain people are wired to embrace an ambiguous environment, much like others need structure and certainty.  Not only are certain people wired in such a way as to make them more comfortable with ambiguity, but they actually crave it.  Anthony’s solution sounds like a rather inefficient way of determining which managers have a love of ambiguity in their DNA.  A better solution would be determining which managers have the ambiguity “gene” through some kind of behavioral analysis and then placing these managers in the more ambiguous environments.

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