Ambiguity: Know Thyself To Know Thy Enemy

by Jay Suhr

This is part of a series about how to manage ambiguity for creatives, innovators and problem-solvers. In parts one and two, we introduced the idea and we looked at why ambiguous projects are spreading. For this next post, we’re going to take a look at people who hate ambiguity and what they can do to rewire their brains.

I’m going to make some assumptions about you.

I assume that you are smart, curious and looking to expand how you work. I assume you are stellar at some parts of handling ambiguous projects. You may be a goal-setter, orchestrator, catalyst, what-iffer, challenger, idea generator, idea Cuisinart-er, or a hybrid.

You’ve been part of teams “specially selected” to take on ambiguous projects. Some have gone OK. Most have created confusion, churn, reboots, feelings of stupidity, feelings of failure, and panic to create something “no one has ever seen before.”

I’ve been there. As an agency “creative” these feelings come with the job. We are often asked to take a vague notion handed to us in a creative brief and transform it into something amazing. While this familiarity with the process makes some of us more comfortable with the unknown, that does not shield us from a growing ambiguousness for what our clients want. Today’s briefs are more abstract, driven largely by new technology, new channels, and new customer expectations. The thinking and problem-solving skills we’ve relied upon in the past fall short. And this applies to everyone. Getting better starts by getting inside your own head.

Following are three steps you can take to meet and deal with ambiguity.

1. Neutralize Uncertainty

Humans hate uncertainty. Human professionals hate not having the big idea, the solution and control. We despise feeling or looking stupid. We alleviate anxiety with a rushed need for closure that blunts our ability to explore bolder solutions.

“The mind state caused by ambiguity is called uncertainty, and it’s an emotional amplifier,” writes Jamie Holmes in Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, his book that delves into how ambiguity affects decision-making. “It makes anxiety more agonizing, and pleasure especially enjoyable.”

For me, managing uncertainty starts by gaining some control. First, I point to the project and define it as what it will be: “roller coaster.” This gets your head ready for the twists, unexpected turns, queasiness, and thrills ahead. Next, I work to get everyone off to a fast start by sponging up as much information as we can as early as we can. It creates a sense of accomplishment and gets our brains warmed up for what’s ahead.

In Nonsense, Holmes outlines four qualities that are key to managing ambiguity based on research from social scientist Miguel Escotet: being self-critical, curious, flexible and risk embracing. Step back and assess yourself in these areas. Here’s why I think they’re important.

For me, being self-critical means understanding how you gauge your own process, work and feelings. What are your natural tendencies in solving a problem you’ve never seen before? Do you get lost in data? Do you look for comparable solutions? Do you push for quick answers? Do you dominate discussions? Before you dive into the project, get outside of yourself and think through how you play your role. What should you do differently?

Curiosity is a trait that drives the most innovative thinkers. For me, it’s critical to maintain wide-open curiosity especially early in the process. Ask lots of “why” questions to uncover fresh insights. Don’t rush to judgment on a partially formed idea or think you have to quickly select those first good ideas.

Flexibility means actively listening and building off ideas from others. If you are a powerful idea generator with a strong personality, you may want to hold back for a while to give other ideas space for discussion. (Feel free to borrow the note I write to myself before ideation sessions: “Shut up!”)

Risk-embracing is a personal, team and cultural mindset. I see teams who go into things timidly, worried about getting it wrong. Better to go into them thinking that there is no wrong. There may be more relevant, more differentiated, or more right solutions, but there should never be a wrong. Embracing risk means that the strongest solutions may not be a logical iteration, but demand a huge leap.

2. Play with Your Ambiguity

“Time to make shit up” is my icebreaker in starting an ambiguous project with a team. It gets a laugh. It breaks the tension. It also works on other levels.

It’s honest. Even the senior person in the room doesn’t have the answer. It becomes a shared mission of discovery. “Make” conveys play and craft. The “s-word” is unexpected and open-ended. The solution could be anything.

Part of play is making sure you keep it loose and explore lots of options early. Build on early ideas. Beat a good idea with a great one. Beat a great idea with a breakthrough one. This mindset prevents teams from pre-ordaining a solution or falling in love with the first good idea and burning their time in one direction. (All common mistakes.)

3. Stiff-arm Your Need for Closure

Humans also have a massive need for closure. As pressure and timelines increase, our comfort with ambiguity decreases. Our drive for certainty and closure accelerates.

“Urgency, in short, makes for inflexible minds,” is how social psychologist Arie Kruglanski and colleagues framed it. Jamie Holmes explains further: “As uncertainties add up, they ultimately accelerate our drive toward certainty. (It) changes the way we evaluate an idea or consider an explanation, and it makes us less creative and more confident about a course of action even when we are wrong.”

“Cognitive closure is a bit like shutting the windows of our open minds,” he wrote. “When various pressures pile up, these windows don’t merely close. They slam shut, and then they lock.” Great insight.

Need for closure is the enemy. Confession: In the first year of my career I was a procrastinating perfectionist. (Lethal combo.) In my next jobs, I overcompensated and dialed up my sense of urgency. But in doing this, I could feel myself giving into the pressure, deadlines and my need for closure. I missed bigger ideas as a result. I’ve adjusted and keep adjusting.

What’s your need for closure? Arie Kruglanski and fellow psychologist Donna Webster created a “Need for Closure” scale to provide an answer. Before reading on, take minute to click on the link in the previous sentence and complete a short-form version of the quiz.

But if your need for closure is that great….

People higher in need for closure are more likely to enjoy black-and-white stories with simple morals; to develop quick, hard-to-dislodge judgments about other people and other groups of people; and to feel more uncomfortable with being “left hanging” over some important issue.

People lower in need for closure seem to have an easier time seeing in shades of gray — to understand that good people can do bad things (and vice versa), and to appreciate ambiguous endings or plotlines in film or books.

Research shows that ambiguous projects are best run by people with a lower need for closure.

Did I Assume Correctly?

Ambiguity creates anxieties for everyone. Some are hardwired in our brains. Those anxieties form barriers to taking on the challenge at hand. Start by assessing yourself, then you’ll be ready to lead. That’s our next post in the series.

Jay Suhr

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