How to Sail Through Creative Uncertainty

August 14, 2013 — 5 Comments

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LAND HO!: A still from “Embrace Ambiguity,” a video by the old salts of IDEO’s New York office. The team wrote the script, hand-built the sets, then filmed and edited the clip themselves.

Fog is always present at IDEO, and not just at our San Francisco office. It’s a metaphor we use for those iffy moments when a project team doesn’t know where they’re headed. Sometimes the cloudiness is caused by a big, abstract question the team is trying to answer, like “How might we improve education for preschool children?” Sometimes the uncertainty arises from the competing needs of the people we’re designing for—especially if they’re just one part of a complex system.

Setting sail in such foggy conditions can make for a rough voyage. It requires embracing ambiguity—an essential part of the creative process and a core value here. (I wrote about another IDEO credo, “Make Others Successful,” here.) Being designers, we couldn’t help but visualize what we mean. Here’s the “Embrace Ambiguity” video, handmade by our New York team.

When a boat filled with IDEOers (and a dog!) is enveloped in clouds, obscuring their view of land, no one jumps overboard or abandons ship. Instead, the crew brainstorms their way out of the haze. By taking small, continuous steps as a group, they’re able to make progress and find their sense of direction. It’s a simple trick our teams use all the time to navigate tough challenges and get unstuck.

If you’ve set your sights on a new world of ideas, you need to be okay with not knowing where you’ll end up before you start. By embracing ambiguity, you’re saying to your team: fog was in the forecast. Just stay focused, work together, and our final destination will soon come into sight.

What tricks do you use to get unstuck?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog) 

Tim Brown

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5 comments on “How to Sail Through Creative Uncertainty

  1. Regarding your last sentence ‘stay focused …’: where do you put your focus if the destination (goal) is not set?
    PierG

  2. I’ll admit to being afraid of the fog. I like doing a lot of homework so that when I finally set sail, the fog is cleared. I think it’s a fair point that sometimes it’s okay to embrase the fog and trust your “sailing skills” to get you to new and exciting places.

    One trick I use often to get unstuck is switching mediums. If I need to draw something and I get all “fogged out”, I’ll just switch from Wacom to paper, for example, or sometimes even switch from drawing to writing or vice versa. Case in point: in one of my latest storyboards I got stuck really badly. Finally I decided to just write what I imagined in each panel instead of sketching it. After 2 days of sticky procrastination, BANG! The knot was untied in a matter of minutes. The all I had to do was draw my written notes… and that was somehow easy!

  3. Re: how do you get unstuck?

    Take lots of notes; talk to lots of potential users/ customers.

    Go back and study the notes/ insights and let the magic come on its own time frame.

  4. When I get stuck, I give myself the freedom to blunder around in the fog. I do not give myself the freedom to be inactive. The actions I take when stuck often look funny, misguided, or dumb in the light of a finished project, but sometimes the blundering turns out to be rather genius.

  5. when stuck, start doing something. brainstorm with others, take notes, sketch out an idea that comes from those notes, and then show it to people to get reactions.

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