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How is your ambiguity tolerance? Invitation to join our research

Ikhlaq Sidhu, Chief Scientist and Founding Director, Sutardja Center | October 7, 2013

I’ve just returned from Madrid, teaching in the final week of our inaugural Global Engineering Leadership Program.  This program extends the content I designed for the Silicon Valley Professional Program, with an Asian and European perspective on technology firm leadership.


Comfort zone scale

While the program covers a variety of new and interesting topics, including Positive Psychology, What Does it Take to Innovate Within a Large Firm? and New Management Issues with Big Data, the most surprising discussion theme related to the implications of a person’s comfort or tolerance for ambiguity.

Tolerance for ambiguity is often correlated to innovation and entrepreneurship.  But how do you measure it?  Is your professional comfort zone different than your personal comfort zone?  If you are more comfortable with ambiguity, will you be less stressed, more effective in your career, or even happier as an individual?

Take a minute to measure your own ambiguity tolerance by answering a few questions in this link. Assess your comfort level with ambiguity, and help support our research in this area.  Research results will be posted to this website.

Our Madrid discussions started by reviewing the research in “Quant Mentality” by Prof. Paris de l’Etraz, with whom I am collaborating to further his work.  Prof. de I’Etraz originally defined a “Comfort Zone Scale”  (illustrated below) to self-assess a person’s comfort with increasing levels of personal and professional ambiguity.

The scale is simple to use and intuitive to understand.  On the left of the drawing is Certainty and on the right is Uncertainty.  The levels P1 to P4 refer to your personal life.  P1 means you hate uncertainty in your personal life, while P4 means that you are very comfortable with uncertainty in your personal life.  Similarly, W1 means you hate uncertainty in your professional life, while W4 means that you are very comfortable with uncertainty in your professional life.

If you are P2/W4, for example, it means that in your personal life you are a bit careful and dislike uncertainty while in your professional life you are willing to go to Alaska to try to sell ice to Eskimos!

Think about this …what are you? This is effectively the size of the mental box that holds you back from experimenting and testing new ideas.  When evaluating your own comfort zone size, here are some quick guidelines:

1. The scale is designed to find out if you “can be comfortable” having progressively less certainty about what will happen as a result of your decision.

2. The scale should reflect your “ability to be comfortable” not the ability to withstand discomfort.  So if you are in an environment which causes you to take repeated risks that you are not comfortable with, then you are not higher on the P1-4 or W1-4 scale.

I consider myself a P2/W3, while Prof. de l’Etraz says he is a P1/W4.  We suspect that a measure of your comfort level and tolerance for ambiguity while making critical decisions may be seminal to innovation, entrepreneurship, and engineering leadership overall.   Moreover, people seem to change levels throughout their lives.  It’s also likely that this psychological characteristic could be changed with training, for those who want it.

So go ahead, use the link to let us know where you are on the scale.  It’s been a big topic in Madrid!