How Can My Team Get Better at Handling Ambiguity?

Advice from The Sherwins for April 2018



Dear Sherwins,

At the risk of sounding cliché, my team has problems dealing with ambiguity. My junior designers seem scared when things aren’t well-defined. They really want a simple answer so they can get moving. But we work at a consultancy. Every project is ambiguous. How do I get my team to accept and embrace ambiguity as a kind of freedom?

L in Washington D.C.


It’s not quite cliché, L, but you’re right: Teams struggling with ambiguity is not a new thing.

But before we go any further, we’ll take a moment to challenge you on the “ambiguity as a kind of freedom” part of your question. Ambiguity provides opportunities, yes. Does that mean that ambiguity also provides a kind of freedom? No. Ambiguous situations may allow us to think differently, to expand our understanding of a problem, to move away from the common ways of doing things. But none of those things are freedom.

We say this not to make a big political statement about it (though we easily could). Instead, we want to guide you toward a different way of talking about ambiguity with your team. As designers, we get wrapped up in “reframing” things to make them sound better, more inspiring, more more. But sometimes we don't need to reframe things. What we really need to is to be honest.

Ambiguity is scary, quite honestly. You don’t really know what you’re doing or what’s going to happen. You don’t really know what you’re building. You might not even know what problem you’re trying to solve. And if you’re a junior designer—meaning you’re pretty new at this whole game—the last thing that you want is someone to tell you that jumping out of an airplane and having to figure out how to build a parachute on the way down is something to be embraced. You also don’t want someone reminding you should be trying to think outside the box, that it doesn’t have to be a parachute, it just needs to solve the problem of you plummeting towards the earth to your death.

Have you told your team that you know that they’re worried? Have you told them that you don’t know how to solve this problem either, but that you’ll figure it out together? Have you told them about all of the things throughout human history that were invented without much more than the process called trial and error?

Consultancies frequently get called upon to influence an organization’s decision-making so they can make great products or services on behalf of customers. What should we make over the next five years? How can we reach more people in our market?What’s the future of our company? When you make your big presentation to the client at the end of these projects, there’s never going to be a big reveal of a single parachute. You know this. Your junior designers do not. So as their manager, it might be good to remind them that when you’ve been asked to influence the decision-making of an organization, when you’re being asked to answer those big questions, that client is not looking for a parachute. That client wants the outcome that the parachute provides.

Junior designers (and even some senior designers) are biased towards outputs. They’re probably perfectly willing to sketch 1000 iterations of a parachute if you asked them to. They’d probably stay until midnight to get it done. Your team doesn’t really want simple answers. They just want to know that when they jump out of that plane they’re not going to die. They want to know if they’re going to be right.

And that’s not something you can give them. That’s not something we can give anybody.

What you can give them is the ability to look at each thing that they’re making, each wireframe, each market segmentation, each research summary, and ask: “How is the client going to use this? Does this get them closer to the outcome they want or not? Is the method that I’m using getting me the information that I need?” And when they don’t know the answers, you must teach them to seek out their team so they can draw on each other’s expertise.

There is no solution to being more comfortable with ambiguity. There’s no book or tool or workshop. You can’t offer them what you already know doesn’t exist. You can’t build them more than the space to be honest about the things they do not know. You can’t give them more than the chance to be disciplined and intentional about how they step towards the door, how they leap, and how they fall.

The Sherwins

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Send questions to questions (at) askthesherwins (daht) com. All questions become the property of Ask The Sherwins, LLC and may be edited. Our advice shouldn't be construed as a replacement for the appropriate legal or professional counsel. This advice will unambiguously be replaced on May 1, 2018.