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Ambiguity

Ambiguous communication tends to waste enormous amounts of time on a project. When information is expressed accurately, clearly, and without a trace of ambiguity, individuals are best served to interact and solve a problem or make a decision.

When ambiguity is introduced, however, misinterpretations and assumptions are often made, which slow down the productivity of the interaction.

A group of individuals in a meeting room were presented with the following instructions: "Draw a pizza that has eight slices with three lines." Pen and paper in hand, many of the participants looked puzzled. A couple of folks with inquisitive expressions raised their hands, which caused the facilitator to say, "Let's see who can solve the puzzle the fastest; then I'll address your questions."

This simple puzzle becomes impossible to many who try to solve it because they impose constraints that just aren't there.

Many will complain that the possible solutions depicted in Figure 4.2 violate the instructions:

Figure 4.2

Figure 4.2 Pizza Puzzle solutions

Solution A may be disputed by those who imposed an unstated constraint that the pizza can only have three lines. Solution B may be disputed by those required themselves to use only straight lines. In Solution C, each slice has three lines. Most listeners probably inferred that the pizza must have three lines, but the statement could be interpreted as each slice has three lines.

The point of this tricky little exercise isn't about fooling people; it's about how even the most straightforward sounding instruction could be interpreted differently by members of a group. When people assume the message was clear, and they impose their own constraints, waste and mistakes can happen.

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