Own Your Additive Ambiguity

Disruptive innovation, whether creating it or responding to it, involves uncertainty.

Unexpected events and a fundamental lack of control are inherent to this process. Few leaders are formally prepared to deal with the realities of leading or responding to disruption.

We know that with additive manufacturing, you’ll either disrupt with it or be disrupted by it. The sense of urgency to understand and adopt this new technology is very real, yet we still see leaders who are otherwise quite visionary, elect to bow out or turn a blind eye. You’ll hear things like, “We’ve always done it this way,” or, “I want to avoid loss of control.” Or sometimes it’s more basic, like, “I just need to feel safe with my decision-making.”

I, Alison, along with my colleague Nick decided to start this series for several reasons. First, we want to offer something different. Second, we want to do something useful; to provide a new perspective. And third, we want to help business leaders answer some of the tough questions around additive, like: As a leader, how do I prepare to adopt additive inside my org? What should I be prepared to face? Am I ready for this change?

It's generally understood that there are different ways an organization can adapt to the change AM may bring and each individual path may be different, however, we believe there are key perspectives to consider which can help you to embrace disruption and radiate it throughout your organization.

In this first perspective in the series, we’re looking at how to adapt to the ambiguous change that comes with innovation. We believe a key area to focus is how you react to risk; how you feel about leaving your comfort zone to innovate and accomplish new things.

Perspective Number One: Own Your Additive Ambiguity

Taking calculated risks first starts with a change in mindset and fundamental beliefs. Then, it involves opening yourself up to making the bold, radical-change decisions.

You can begin this shift through implementation of change in small, daily tasks. Then, there will be more space to take on the bigger risks and really challenge the way things have always been done.

“Flow in the face of the unknown” - IDEO

In order to effect change, you must try to rock the status quo. You must welcome a level of healthy conflict or ambiguity. Don’t run from it, don’t fear it. Instead, pro-actively invite it in.

You need to embrace the disequilibrium at its down point. You need to own your ambiguity.

This works on paper, but perhaps in real life it’s harder. Often, with additive, you’re being asked to build bridges that connect cities not yet built.

The classic macroeconomic definition of disequilibrium is when an external force disrupts the supply-demand curve causing the two to be out of balance. Eventually a shift in either the supply or demand, or both, takes the curve back to equilibrium.

When implementing and adopting additive, you must be prepared to be the external force disrupting the balance. Change will not come without.

The Productive Zone of Disequilibrium (PZD) – The zone between a limit of tolerance and a threshold of change, where you’re able to safely generate enough conflict to gain attention, engagement, and forward motion, but not so much that the organization explodes.[1]

Abstract from The Practice of Adaptive Leadership by Ronald Heifetz:

“Collective and individual disequilibrium is a byproduct generated when you call attention to tough questions and draw people’s sense of responsibility beyond current norms and job descriptions. Of course, organizations and individuals like to stay in their comfort zone. When you raise a difficult issue or surface a deep value conflict, you take people out of their comfort zone and raise a lot of heat. That is tricky business. You must continually fiddle with the flame to see how much heat the system can tolerate. Your goal should be to keep the temperature within what we call the productive zone of disequilibrium (PZD): enough heat generated by your intervention to gain attention, engagement, and forward motion, but not so much that the organization, or your part of it, explodes.

Clearly, you need patience and persistence to lead adaptive change. And unlike with a technical problem, there is no clear, linear path to the resolution of an adaptive challenge. You need a plan, but you also need freedom to deviate from the plan as new discoveries emerge, as conditions change, and as new forms of resistance arise.” [2]

So, how do you know if what you’re facing is an adaptive challenge, and not a technical challenge?

Answer the following questions:

  • Is your problem not clearly defined?

  • Are you missing some of the information you need to find a solution?

  • Does this change challenge deeply held behaviors, practices, and mindsets?

  • Does this change require stakeholders who will need to be engaged and along for the ride?

  • Does it require new learning and risk-taking?

If you answered yes to all or most of the above, you’re likely facing an adaptive challenge, and company culture can often struggle with embracing this type of challenge.

How can you be sure to keep your team in the Productive Zone of Disequilibrium, or the PZD?

In another Heifetz article, titled, “Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis,” he discusses how Paul Levy, CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center was able to achieve disequilibrium. After remedying the immediate financial crisis that Levy inherited, he was able to continue a level of pressure to drive change within the culture of the organization by maintaining a state of discomfort within the org. He purposely aired the hospitals dirty laundry, releasing reports of the hospital’s medical errors to the public. Doing so drove changes in behavior, which led to improved patient care.[3]

Plan to start small

Seek out small problems and embrace new ways to resolve them.

Heifetz suggests that leaders should always seek out adaptive challenges that have no clear technical solutions and figure them out. This approach creates new and profound ways of working and thinking that move a business forward. Here are two ways we think you can action or practice this:

  • Strive to have a spirit of continual reinvention. Start with personal continual reinvention until you adopt this as a natural mindset. Try a weekend activity purposely filled with ambiguity and watch this space flourish.

  • Transition from a planning mentality to an experimenting mentality. More experiments mean more at-bats. Actively encourage your staff to share new ideas, test them, and rapidly scale the winners. Ready to really shake things up and challenge the status quo? Instead of approaching a problem with a traditional planning method of:

Try the experiment method. The next time you’re trying to find a solution to a problem, start by listing at least five different potential solutions.

If this works well for your team, practice doing this a few times until it becomes your new normal for approaching a problem.

Organizations that evaluate multiple ways to solve a problem are much more likely to succeed—more than 42% more likely, and, on average, get to market faster.[4]

Write your Commander’s Intent

Borrowed from the US military, the term “Commander’s Intent” refers to the overall objective of a military mission.

In military operations, there are thousands of details to be shared and actioned across dozens of personnel. The concept of the Commander’s Intent was crafted to ensure that no matter what you as a soldier were tasked with, you always had a clear understanding of the overall mission objective. The Commander’s Intent could be as simple as “Get Platoon 443 onto Hilltop Alpha Bravo and neutralize all threats so our logistics convoys can proceed unchallenged.” For you as a soldier, there is no confusion on your objective of this mission.

One very important aspect of Commander’s Intent is that it also lays out the purpose, or the why. This tells Platoon 443 why it’s important to neutralize all threats on the hill. If Platoon 443 takes Hilltop Alpha Bravo and finds there are no enemy to neutralize, they will know that the reason they needed to take the hill was to protect convoys. And if they see enemy on the next hill over, they don’t need to wait to get orders to take the next hill, they just do it.

“To reduce the risk of being rendered unusable in the event of unforeseen circumstances, the Commander’s Intent is purposely ambiguous. Regardless of their ranking, soldiers can improvise and align their behavior without jeopardizing the overall mission; and if need be, specify for clarification and without the need for instruction from their leaders.” [5]

Using a Commander’s Intent helps implement radical, top-down change, while still including and empowering staff to join in and pivot as needed. It is a statement, that while purposely written with ambiguity, still provides very clear direction.

How to write your (Additive) Commander’s Intent:

“If we do nothing else, we must _______________.”

“The single, most important thing that we must do is _________________.”

Put it to work

It's generally understood that there are different ways an organization can adapt to the change AM may bring and each individual path may be different, however, we believe there are key strategies to be mastered to help embrace disruption and radiate it throughout your organization.

Once again, you can begin this shift through implementation of change in small, daily tasks. You’ll then be better prepared to take on the bigger risks and really challenge the way things have always been done.

In the next few weeks:

  1. At your next opportunity, purposely welcome a Saturday evening out with no formal plan. How did it feel to adapt as your evening unfolds, instead of planning it in advance?

  2. When searching for your next solution to a problem, experiment with five solutions vs. just planning around one.

  3. Write your Additive Commander’s Intent and share it with your team.

What’s next: Why learn the hard way?

Join us next time as we deep-dive into industries that prevailed in the face of disruptive innovation. We’ll specifically look at key industries that survived their innovation S-Curve.

We’ll go far beyond just reviewing the S-Curve, acknowledging its existence. We’ll look at actual use-cases and review what we as an AM industry can use as valuable lessons learned.

As always, we welcome any comments or questions at alison.wyrick@ge.com or nick.estock@ge.com.

If you have enjoyed what you've read, please share it with your network, and follow us for more light and informative stories.

Alison & Nick


[1] Conger, J., Lawler, E., and Spreitzer, G. (1998). Mobilizing Adaptive Work: Beyond Visionary Leadership,” in The Leader’s Change Handbook, eds. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.

[2] Heifetz, R., Grashow, A., and Linsky, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business Press.

[3] Heifetz, R., Grashow, A., and Linsky, M. (2009). Leadership in a (permanent) crisis. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2009/07/leadership-in-a-permanent-crisis.

[4] Aycan, D. (March 12, 2019). Four common Missteps on the road to innovation. Retrieved from https://www.ideo.com/blog/4-common-missteps-on-the-road-to-innovation.

[5] Heath, C., Heath, D. (2008) Made to stick. London: Random House.