Friday, May 29, 2009


I have an on-again, off-again relationship with clarity: I aim for it in most things, but there are times when too much clarity makes me feel claustrophobic, as it forces me to eliminate options that I am not quite ready to discard.

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Many years ago, O’Reilly Media founder and CEO Tim O’Reilly wrote a memo to the company’s managers about our role. One of things he wanted was for managers to “tolerate ambiguity, resolve ambiguity, and create ambiguity.” We all laughed when we read it, but in many ways it has been a key element in the continued success of the company. As the company has matured, we’ve managed to strike a manageable balance between encouraging a certain amount of ambiguity even as we continually strive for something that passes for clarity. It is not always easy to make the necessary choices.

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There are people who would like to eradicate ambiguity entirely; they want to make a list, nail things down, get closure and be done with it. That’s a good way to approach cleaning one’s house: finally decide what to do with that old side table of Aunt Tillie’s that you’ve been tripping over in the basement for years. But it’s not a viable approach for the world that lies beyond your direct control, i.e., most of life.

I have a colleague at O’Reilly who is quite determined in her quest to resolve ambiguity, whether it’s getting clear about roles, goals, or marketing messages. But the thing that makes her unusual—and quite effective—is that her driving desire for clarity doesn’t override her willingness and ability to change course quickly when the situation changes. She doesn’t hang onto what was and try to force the situation back into that state; she lets go and begins from where things are now. And that makes her an excellent problem-solver, because she is always solving the problem as it is now, not as it was a week ago, a day ago, or, far too often, just a few hours ago.

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Ambiguity is a deal-breaker for most horses—they either look to their rider for leadership or they figure they’re on their own. To them, clarity is leadership. It lets them know what’s expected and what’s permissible in any given situation, and makes them feel safe. If you watch horses interact with each other out in the paddock, you see that they have very distinct ways of establishing hierarchies and setting boundaries. This is what “horse whisperers” have learned, and it is how they work what seems to be magic.

I try to be as clear and consistent as I can with Wolfie. Any indecision on my part leads to indecision (and an open door for unwanted behavior) on his. Sometimes it's hard to do. One has to let go of self-doubt and strive for consistency. I can't think: "I must be doing something wrong, since he's not doing what I am asking him to do." The truth is that if I always use the same cues and have the same expectations of him, every time, eventually we'll come to understand each other. Or at least he'll come to understand me.


Unknown said...

I laughed ... I cried ... it was better than "Cats"
.... but ... I was ... unclear ... about two things
First things first ... in regard to "too much clarity"
if you simply resurrected a- discarded - option or two you'd have ambiguity right where you wanted it ... and clarity would be at your beck and call. There's no problem too small - that a little chaos - can't twist from a simple fate, into a complicated mess
I agree clarity is not always the best place to be !

Secondly, what did you do with aunt Tillie's table?

Miten Sampat said...

Edie, a very thoughtful post.
did Tim O'Reilly ever publish that memo publicly?

Edie Freedman said...

No, he didn't. I gave him a framed copy of it a few years ago; I think it is somewhere near his desk in Sebastopol.

lucyfree said...

I like this post. Well written and very funny quote from Tim. I am sharing your comments with my horsewomen friend Diane who knows what you mean!

lucyfree said...

oops I mean horsewoman. changed number of horsewomen in the middle of the stream.

Ray said...

Edie my friend: That post flowed beautifully and helped me sum up what I am constantly trying to pass on to my students. Horses do need clear, kind, self-assuring leadership. They need us to stay out of the right side of our brains when working with them if we want to eliminate dusting outselves off on occasion. For the sensitive ones, every thought and action must say "depend on me." They help us through intimate reflection to work harder and harder to stay in this important loving plce no matter what. For most, like myself, it's a lifetime commitment or practice and more practice. When you are connected with their spiritual minds and teaching intentions you can fly. It's late, I'm tired but happy I was up to read your blog. Hugs to you while on our mutual journey.