Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

The Heretic’s Guide to Management – understanding ambiguity in the corporate world

with 7 comments

I am delighted to announce that my new business book, The Heretic’s Guide to Management: The Art of Harnessing Ambiguity, is now available in e-book and print formats. The book, co-written with Paul Culmsee, is a loose sequel to our previous tome, The Heretics Guide to Best Practices.

Many reviewers liked the writing style of our first book, which combined rigour with humour. This book continues in the same vein, so if you enjoyed the first one we hope you might like this one too. The new book is half the size of the first one and I considerably less idealistic too. In terms of subject matter, I could say “Ambiguity, Teddy Bears and Fetishes” and leave it at that…but that might leave you thinking that it’s not the kind of book you would want anyone to see on your desk!

Rest assured, The Heretic’s Guide to Management is not a corporate version of Fifty Shades of Grey. Instead, it aims to delve into the complex but fascinating ways in which ambiguity affects human behaviour. More importantly, it discusses how ambiguity can be harnessed in ways that achieve positive outcomes.  Most management techniques (ranging from strategic planning to operational budgeting) attempt to reduce ambiguity and thereby provide clarity. It is a profound irony of modern corporate life that they often end up doing the opposite: increasing ambiguity rather than reducing it.

On the surface, it is easy enough to understand why: organizations are complex entities so it is unreasonable to expect management models, such as those that fit neatly into a 2*2 matrix or a predetermined checklist, to work in the real world. In fact, expecting them to work as advertised is like colouring a paint-by-numbers Mona Lisa, expecting to recreate Da Vinci’s masterpiece. Ambiguity therefore invariably remains untamed, and reality reimposes itself no matter how alluring the model is.

It turns out that most of us have a deep aversion to situations that involve even a hint of ambiguity. Recent research in neuroscience has revealed the reason for this: ambiguity is processed in the parts of the brain which regulate our emotional responses. As a result, many people associate it with feelings of anxiety. When kids feel anxious, they turn to transitional objects such as teddy bears or security blankets. These objects provide them with a sense of stability when situations or events seem overwhelming. In this book, we show that as grown-ups we don’t stop using teddy bears – it is just that the teddies we use take a different, more corporate, form. Drawing on research, we discuss how management models, fads and frameworks are actually akin to teddy bears. They provide the same sense of comfort and certainty to corporate managers and minions as real teddies do to distressed kids.

A plain old Teddy

A Plain Teddy

Most children usually outgrow their need for teddies as they mature and learn to cope with their childhood fears. However, if development is disrupted or arrested in some way, the transitional object can become a fetish – an object that is held on to with a pathological intensity, simply for the comfort that it offers in the face of ambiguity. The corporate reliance on simplistic solutions for the complex challenges faced is akin to little Johnny believing that everything will be OK provided he clings on to Teddy.

When this happens, the trick is finding ways to help Johnny overcome his fear of ambiguity.

Ambiguity is a primal force that drives much of our behaviour. It is typically viewed negatively, something to be avoided or to be controlled.

A Sith Teddy

A Sith Teddy

The truth, however, is that ambiguity is a force that can be used in positive ways too. The Force that gave the Dark Side their power in the Star Wars movies was harnessed by the Jedi in positive ways.

A Jedi Teddy

A Jedi Teddy

Our book shows you how ambiguity, so common in the corporate world, can be harnessed to achieve the results you want.

The e-book is available via popular online outlets. Here are links to some:

Amazon Kindle

Google Play


For those who prefer paperbacks, the print version is available here.

Thanks for your support 🙂

Written by K

July 12, 2016 at 10:30 pm

7 Responses

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  1. Looks great K, congratulations! Looking forward to reading it.



    July 13, 2016 at 4:12 am

    • Thanks so much Scott! If you have the time, we’de greatly appreciate your feedback / comments.





      July 13, 2016 at 6:18 am

  2. Like the premise of the book K and the sticky image of the teddy is a neat metaphor. Looking forward to reading it. Does the book explore the link between ‘ambiguity’ – disagreement or confusion about meaning – and its link to ‘uncertainty’ – disagreement about what might happen next – or did you and Paul decide that was out of scope?



    July 26, 2016 at 7:44 pm

    • Hi Vincent,

      First up, many thanks for your support, it’s hugely appreciated!

      You’ve brought up an interesting point which appears somewhat indirectly in the book. Let me try to explain…

      This may sound strange, but in the book we actually do not define ambiguity at all. Instead, we contrast it with risk, the difference between the two being that the latter can be calculated, or at least estimated in some sense, whereas the former cannot. This is precisely the Knightian distinction between risk and uncertainty. However, Knight’s use of the term uncertainty glosses over its psychological and cognitive effects. This is why we chose to use the term ambiguity instead of uncertainty. We dwell on the risk/ambiguity (or uncertainty) distinction from the cognitive/psychological perspective in Chapter 3 of the book.

      So, to (sort of) address your question: the sense in which we use the term ambiguity is uncertainty rather than vagueness of meaning. Much of the book explores why ambiguity tends to have a negative effect on decision making and what one can do about it. In a nutshell: ambiguity tends to evoke emotional rather than logical or reflective responses. Making considered decisions in ambiguous situations thus requires one to understand and address the emotional responses of the individuals involved in or affected by the decision. We offer some experience-based practical suggestions on how one can do this effectively.

      I hope this (sort of!) makes sense. Don’t hesitate to let me know if it doesn’t – your feedback would be very welcome.

      Once again, thanks a ton for writing in and for your support.





      July 27, 2016 at 4:32 pm

      • Thank you for your very considered reply, Kailash – almost a mini-blog in itself 🙂 Has given me much to ponder. Seems like the words themselves are as elusive as the concepts they try to describe. I think your point about needing to manage the emotional response to ambiguity is spot on. Regards, Vincent


        Vincent Driscoll

        July 28, 2016 at 9:05 pm

  3. K, wonderful news; I’ll grab it in hard cover and put a review up on Linkedin.

    Liked by 1 person


    August 19, 2016 at 11:21 am

    • Thanks David, a review would be great! The paperback will be out this Monday (22nd August) and we hope to get a hard cover version out soon.





      August 20, 2016 at 6:11 pm

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