1 June 2020Design thinking
2 November 2020
Learning to sit in a space of ambiguity is a valuable skill in a culture driven by ‘knowing’ and solutions
In the second edition of a series on the design and innovation process, our Consumer Strategist Kieran Purcell discusses embracing uncertainty and what we can learn from sitting in the ‘messy middle’.
On a recent visit to my therapist we were discussing a tricky situation in my life for which I didn’t have a clear answer. During our conversation I was stretching and scrambling to find a solution, visibly agitated with the ambiguity of the situation and the lack of a clear direction. She eventually told me that I should stop reaching for answers, and instead become more present and aware of what was happening in the moment. “Trust the process” she said, “there is a lot to learn in the messy middle.” Mulling on these statements there is a lot of crossover when moving through the research and design process, and we would do well to heed her advice on our journey through innovation, design and research.
From a young age we are lauded when we are right, and met with disapproval when we are wrong or don’t know. We live in a culture where knowing the answer is put on a pedestal; above curiosity, above inquiry, and these values inevitably flow through all aspects of our lives, including our work. Now as adults in business we are tasked with having answers, being certain; to be right and to have the answers cuts to the very core of our value.
But how can we be “right” when we are dealing with complex problems that don’t have obvious solutions? Do we cling to silver bullets that don’t sufficiently address our questions? Are we conditioned to reach for answers too early, without taking in all the information we need to make a learned decision?
We strive for the answer because it feels uncomfortable to exist in a place of uncertainty, doubt, & murkiness. We have been trained to “know” and therefore fear not knowing; though it is inevitable we will encounter ambiguity, and learning to sit in this space is a valuable skill.
Recognising the struggle
The signs of our uncomfortable wrestle with uncertainty are obvious if we become present to them, and everyone will recognise at least one or two of these from their own experience. They come in moments of tension. Tension within yourself; a feeling of anxiety not knowing what the end result will look like, grasping at ideas and past experience to try and make the situation clearer, creating patterns from very little information, becoming fixated on a particular solution. And tension between people; struggling to keep an open mind, shutting down other ideas, making up answers in situations where you simply don’t know, the fear of telling someone else that you don’t have a resolution, trying to push forward and create solutions instead of asking more questions, friction within a team.
These are the symptoms of our culture’s adoration for knowing the solution. Business is a cult of solutions. And there is only one way to overcome our fear of the messy middle and take advantage of the richness that can be found in it: we have to practice sitting in the uncomfortable feelings that come from ambiguity.
Why it’s important to confront ambiguity
Choosing a rushed solution instead of working through uncertainty and defining the problem is like trying to build a house with a cheap hammer. It appears we have something that will do the job, but it lacks quality and will end up having to be replaced sooner rather than later.
By clinging to the obvious, we oversimplify solutions and increase the bias that creeps into these solutions. Instead we want to spend more time defining the problem and keep a wide range of potential routes open for as long as possible. We do this by sitting in ambiguity and shining a light directly on those things we don’t know, which opens up the space for us to be able to work with them. The longer we stay here the greater our appreciation of the situation becomes, and the more relevant any subsequent solution will be.
So what does this look like in practice?
Embrace the feeling of uncertainty and the fact that you will have to address it at some point. Build time into your plan to explore the uncertainty, encourage your team to externalise the unknowns and tensions; name them and write them down. Externalising these things allows individuals and groups to be able to work with them and become more comfortable with those feelings.
This is the most difficult action, and one that is impossible to achieve perfectly. But doing something is definitely better than doing nothing in this case, so we should try to keep an open mind throughout the process. Tell your team to suspend judgement on ideas until later, working with uncertainty is a time for open minds and exploration. Let multiple ideas coexist simultaneously in your own head as well as in the working space. Let go of the need to control the outcome, there’s a time for judgement later.
Planning time for ambiguity
Be brave enough to include time to discuss and explore uncertainty within the framework of the overall project plan. Sometimes we can make plans too stringent and rapid (read: controlling the outcome), which often fails to leave enough time for exploration and pivoting based on new insight. Planning time to address this allows for the team to confidently keep moving forward, assured in the fact that the ambiguity will not be skipped.
Conducting small experiments
For risk of wearing out the phrase; fail fast and learn fast. Small experiments are less costly, lead to quicker learnings, and are far more insightful than speculation. Making it tangible is ideal: create simple prototypes to test if possible. This allow teams to navigate ambiguity through learning as they go rather than chasing large outcomes or goals.
Go forth, and seek discomfort
If you find yourself feeling uncomfortable and worried that you don’t have the answer or wanting to cling to a solution early in the process, don’t shy away. Recognise it, embrace it, and work with it. IDEO – the design thinking powerhouse – recognise ambiguity as a critical part of their design process; it allows the people involved to stay open to many possibilities, increasing the chances that one, or a combination of those possibilities, will bring the best solution to the problem they are facing.
Feeling uncomfortable means you are opening yourself up to possibility, and the more we practice being in this uncertainty space the better we will become at doing it. To reach truly meaningful solutions we must pass through these feelings, work with the ups and downs, take the next step, and trust the process. There is a lot for us to learn in the messy middle.
In our upcoming design thinking articles, we'll explore the approaches we use to extract and bring to life real customer problems. If you'd like to hear more, subscribe to Frame or live chat to the team right here on this page. Why not say hi to Kieran on LinkedIn too?