Whether we’re working on corporate identity, positioning strategy or naming, there’s a term we often use in our work with most clients: Strategic Ambiguity. It helps clients understand the need to find balance between being highly specific or overly vague in what it is they stand for and how they want to be perceived.
Strategic ambiguity, as organizational communication expert Eric Eisenberg defines it, enables a company to express itself—its mission and goals—in a way that allows “the freedom to alter operations which have become maladaptive over time.”
By being strategically ambiguous, companies who encounter turbulent times in the future can maintain a firm grasp on their identity and goals while embracing change. For our clients, this is key to staying relevant.
How Does Strategic Ambiguity Work?
Eisenberg notes that when air travel replaced sea travel from the United States to Europe, cruise lines survived only because they rebranded themselves as entertainment and hospitality facilities. This broader self-identifier allowed companies to provide new services, such as pleasure cruises and activities on boats that never even leave the dock. Because the cruise industry didn’t pigeonhole itself as a method of transportation, it survived and has since flourished.
In another industry affected by technological change, at least one company failed to identify the opportunity that strategic ambiguity allowed it. At its heart, Eastman Kodak was a chemical company in the business of making and selling film. As technologies changed and digital transformed how we create and consume images, Kodak didn’t evolve to think of itself more broadly. Had Kodak zoomed out and seen itself as a leader in the imaging industry, its future (and current unfortunate reality) may have looked very different.
Taking advantage of strategic ambiguity isn’t a matter of creating a formula, and it takes work. Finding the right balance is a step we help many clients take, and it’s part of what I love about our work. We help our clients make sometimes difficult choices and develop consensus on where their organizations are headed.
Achieving the Best Results
Three tips for applying strategic ambiguity:
- Know the difference between being ambiguous and being strategic about your ambiguity. When naming and/or positioning your company, you can’t say, “Well, we don’t want to limit ourselves, so we’re going to try to be all things to all people.” You are not all things to all people—and you won’t succeed if you try to be.
- Make choices. Strategic ambiguity is about drawing lines, and it requires a strong identity strategy. It’s more about who you are and why you matter than about what you’re doing right now. If you can commit to what you stand for, that commitment will actually allow for more flexibility when you’re confronted with change.
- Think about the possibilities. Find ways to explore what you do now in different contexts and from new perspectives. This will help prepare you to make decisions about where and how you’ll allow yourself to grow and evolve over time.
If you hang your hat on what you do best right now, understand that people will continue to perceive you that way—a year, five years or 10 years from now.
So think big. Just not too big.