How to Sail Through Creative Uncertainty

August 14, 2013

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)