Embracing Ambiguity In All Its Squishy Forms

by Jay Suhr

A field guide to manage ambiguity for creatives, innovators and problem-solvers. (First in a series of ambiguous length.)

Not-that-many years past, if someone asked me what my agency was working on, my answer would be quick: “A new campaign.” “A new website.” “A new app.”

Now that same question is answered with a pause and: “It’s complicated.”

Welcome to the brave new world of the creative agency, where new technologies and shifting customer expectations have introduced a new set of uncertainties into the way we work. This ambiguity has become as much a part of our world as our clients’. We used to have answers at the ready. Or if we didn’t have answers, we understood the problems well enough to come at them with well-defined processes and ad-like-object answers. Not anymore. Now, the problems we’re tackling are more amorphous than the challenges outlined in typical creative briefs.

Ambiguity has long been a part of the creative process. Creativity almost demands a certain wandering in the wilderness—albeit a guided wandering—to get to an idea. But now there are vaguely-defined problems and few known approaches. For those of us who manage the creative process, this presents distinct challenges. This new approach to wrangling creative teams is called Ambiguity Management.

Ambiguity is often part of a tangled mess that management consultants and others define as VUCA, an acronym for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity.  A piece in Harvard Business Review explains that each of those challenges actually demands a different response based on how much is known about the situation and how well results can be predicted. Ambiguity is characterized as when “causal relationships are completely unclear, no precedents exist, and the team faces ‘unknown unknowns.’”  The article goes on to define various approaches to handling ambiguity, including a focus on creating and testing hypotheses, running experiments and designing experiments so learning can be broadly applied.

Does any of that sound like the deliverables expected from a campaign brief with its single-most important thing, primary benefits and content pillars? Um, no. The new reality is that ambiguous creative projects are here and growing exponentially. However, individuals and teams are struggling to find their way forward.

Over the next months, I’m going to dive into ambiguity and show you things we’ve learned about how to take on ambiguous problems (often after flailing and failing). More importantly, I’ll show how to retrain your brains and teams to manage, learn, and see success.

What makes me an expert? Fair question.

I’m in an interesting position in that my career is now evenly split between years (OK, many years) in both the pre- and post-digital eras. I grew up with positioning, Ogilvy On Advertising, waiting a year for the new Communication Arts Advertising Annual, and developing brands in a campaign context, with TV, print, radio, outdoor, POS and collateral.

When I joined T3, the power of the Internet was becoming apparent. The majority of our projects were characterized by our clients as “firsts”—as in first website, first email campaign, first social media tool and first app. There were few precedents and no roadmaps, so we had to create them. For the past 18 years I’ve been rewiring my own brain and leading teams into the squishy world of ambiguity with new challenges coming at us seemingly every month.

Working in both worlds gives me personal perspective on embracing ambiguity.

T3’s approach to work gives me a cultural perspective that can be distilled down to two words: “think tank.” Long before I got here, T3 framed itself as a think tank and not as an ad agency. That shift in perspective liberated our thinking to uncover more expansive ideas and broaden our definition of creativity. When you’re not solving for an ad, the solution can be almost anything.

Cultural mindset is huge when embracing ambiguity. It’s one of the things I’ll address, along with reconditioning your biased brain, taking a free swim approach to collaboration, celebrating bravery, applying constructive process, learning and bottling what went right, and some ambiguous twists along the way.

Jay Suhr

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