What you’ll learn in this article: Use an iterative framework to turn unknowns into action, and move toward clarity. Communicate through transparency, ownership, action, and follow up. By doing these things, we turn the unknown into discovery, and turn fear into creative possibility.
Most of us experience some level of fear or anxiety about the unknown. Cultures weave mythologies around “what lurks in the unknown”—the forest, the sea, underground, the stars, the human heart. What’s common in such stories is that the unknown is a place of vast and powerful darkness. It’s a place to be avoided, or if necessary, a place to get through as quickly as possible. It’s often associated with chaos and evil.
As many remind us, we live in a VUCA world. We’re surrounded by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. If these are “normal” aspects of reality, should we be looking to avoid them or get past them, or are there other attitudes we can take toward this reality? Could we surf ambiguity, for example? Could we ride the waves of it? Could we be a “leaf on the wind”, or find other ways of navigating it successfully and continually?
At an early age I experienced a lot of unknowns about fundamental things, like frequent moves and the separation of my parents. I also sought to grab hold of anything that seemed stable and rooted—even if I couldn’t literally see it. A kind of faith arose deep within me, and grew into intense creativity. I built worlds in my imagination and began to see possibility and hope in the unknown. I discovered ways of bringing light to the dark places so they weren’t as terrifying.
Eventually, I learned to recognize opportunity for discovery and innovation in situations otherwise described as ambiguous.
Flashlights (and other tools) to transform ambiguity
Navigating ambiguity is a little like mapping terrain with a flashlight. We need to see it, ideally feel and experience it, to really understand what’s there. We must equip ourselves like explorers. Setting out on an expedition into the unknown takes courage—but courage is not a lack of reasonable fear. Such journeys involve risk, to be sure, and the courageous are the ones who move forward despite their fears.
“Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”
—(attributed to) John Wayne
Some of my Viking ancestors—notwithstanding some seriously violent cultural practices—were well-known for their ability to take risks and courageously face them down in pursuit of something better. They also created stories about the Kraken, a sea monster hiding in the deep that would bring ships down to the grave. Despite such stories, they took to the sea again and again. Had they learned to navigate ambiguity, or were they just “crazy” and thought they could win a battle with such a creature?
A brief anatomy of ambiguity
Navigating ambiguity is never comfortable. Ambiguity exists where clarity and certainty are lacking. When things are unclear and uncertain, we often experience such a situation in a negative light. There are so many things we don’t know that we can feel paralyzed and unable to move. The secret is that ambiguity rarely diminishes without action. Inaction reinforces the feeling that ambiguity is too powerful for us to handle.
But what we don’t know isn’t all negative. Ambiguity is also a natural characteristic of possibility and mystery — things we might experience quite positively — especially if they lead to hope and better solutions to serious problems. Creativity can flourish with a regular diet of ambiguity. In fact, without a belief in possibility, creativity is dead in the water.
Any creative endeavor involves encountering both the positive and negative aspects of ambiguity, and working the problem—finding the opportunity—requires wrestling with ambiguity.
Here are a few tools I’ve picked up along the way.
1. Look to the light — or borrow one
It’s rare that we find everything entirely dark. It may feel that way at first, but look for the light, or bring your own. Identify the things you know or have some moderate confidence about. If there’s truly nothing you can be somewhat sure about, rehearse what you know about yourself or your team. If you’ve handled challenges in the past, as most of us have, remembering this can help you find the confidence you need to push ahead into the darkness. It’s like borrowing a light from an earlier experience to help you see the one in front of you. Even if you stumble as you go, you’re engaged in real discovery. It may hurt, but you’re learning what the ground is made of—and learning begins to dispel the ambiguity.
Sometimes the only light you can find is the light you bring. Navigating ambiguity is as much an inward journey as it is an outward one. It will test you. What you’ve learned, what you believe, and what you bring with you will all play a role in the journey.
2. Borrow another person’s shoes
Perspective is a powerful tool, and if we can shift our perspective as we navigate ambiguity it can help us see more angles of the problem at hand. Activate your imagination and get into another person’s shoes. Try to imagine what they see and experience. Better still, interview others and listen to their perspective directly. What can they teach you about the situation you’re facing? Seek out anyone who’s gone before you (if they can be found), but also be careful not to get stuck if you can’t find anyone or the people you think you find haven’t really faced the same thing in the end. Some journeys are truly frontier.
3. Travel together
Recently, I had a great conversation with one of my product leadership mentors. We were talking about the signficant amount of ambiguity we often face in our work as product leaders, and how important transparency is when collaborating with a team.
We don’t want to journey alone; we want to share the burden of ambiguity. At the same time, it’s vital that we inspire confidence and trust within our teams and often those things are held in a kind of tension.
Reinforcing what is known and our purposes in the journey can help continually ground a team, and sharing questions openly can create a team “norm” that fosters transparency and honesty about our progress.
At the same time, however, it’s important to take the lead in pursuing answers and trying things that might bring more clarity and then sharing that learning with the team. This builds trust by closing loops you’ve committed to own.
The more our entire team practices opening and closing these learning loops together, the higher we’ll be able to perform in the midst of highly ambiguous situations.
An effective loop for clarifying and acting on ambiguity
Eric Davis uses a four part framework—identify, assess, prioritize, execute. He learned it as a Navy SEAL and evolved it as a SEAL sniper instructor and entrepreneur. I use it in product management and design, and have found it powerful when applied to all aspects of life.
Here’s how we can use it to navigate ambiguity.
- IDENTIFY. What do we know about the situation we’re facing? What are the unknowns? Map them out. I frequently use mind-mapping tools or white boards to make things visible. The act of making something visible that’s unknown—even with simple words and lines—begins to dispel some of the ambiguity’s power, and allows us to focus on one part at a time.
- ASSESS. Looking at each part of our “map”, begin turning open questions about the unknown into assumptions or hypotheses we can test. For example, perhaps we have no idea if people are interested in reading an article about ambiguity. We can make an assumption—either yes or no in this case—or a hypothesis: “Yes, people are interested in reading about ambiguity”. This then becomes something we could act on to prove or disprove the hypothesis.
- PRIORITIZE. There are a lot of methods for prioritization. When it comes to ambiguity, and most other things, I agree with Eric Davis that we should “prioritize by power, not importance”. Sometimes I also call this prioritizing for impact. Looking at our “map” and the assessments we’ve made, ask which of these areas of ambiguity would provide the most power/impact when it comes to handling the situation? Moving to test out that hypothesis will bring a significant amount of clarity and may even resolve some smaller aspects of what was previously unknown in the process. One caveat I’d make is that if you truly feel paralyzed, go ahead and move on something that feels smaller or more achievable so that you begin to move. Then look for a bigger win in your next iteration. Power can build from small movements.
- EXECUTE. Test your prioritized hypothesis. Write and publish the article. Build a prototype. Talk with a customer. Whether you prove or disprove your hypothesis, you’re gaining clarity either way and gradually removing the ambiguity and discovering more in the process.
The more you practice this process, the more confident you’ll become when facing all kinds of ambiguity. We can turn what we don’t know into an opportunity for discovery and creative possibility.
Wrap up — What to say when you don’t know
My mentor suggested first admitting you don’t know and inviting others to share if they happen to have clarity about the matter in question. This fosters transparency and openness from you and also demonstrates your willingness to learn from others.
Second, though, is taking ownership for finding the answer if no one on the team knows. This demonstrates initiative and commitment to the team, and underscores the importance of actively pursuing the answers.
Lastly, follow up with the team to share what you’ve discovered. This closes the open loop, dispels ambiguity, builds trust that you will do what you committed to do, and inspires confidence—even in the face of ambiguity.
To recap, use an iterative framework—like Eric Davis’ Identify-Assess-Prioritize-Execute—to turn unknowns into action that gets you moving toward clarity. Communicate through transparency, ownership, action, and follow up. By doing these things, we turn the unknown into discovery, and turn fear into creative possibility.