Why innovation requires less certainty and more ambiguity

Matt Whale

Matt Whale is the managing director of innovation consultancy, How To Impact. The dedicated innovation agency has operated in Australia since 2008 and aims to raise the bar on the effectiveness of innovation through process, structure and behaviours that can unlock growth and a greater return on innovation investment. How To Impact is part of a four-agency collective, the Deepend Group, an independent, digital communications and innovation consultancy group.

According to the Knowledge Doubling Theory, the sum total of human knowledge doubles every 12-13 months. With the full evolution of the Internet of Things, it will eventually double every 12 hours.

Faced with such a sea of shifting data and knowledge, how can we make progress if we try to nail everything down to a certainty? We can’t, and this is why ambiguity is such a valuable attribute in business and innovation.

As a society, we reward those who pick a path and stick to it – tax breaks for married couples, loyalty bonuses from insurance companies, 30- and 40-year mortgages for houses we may never completely own. Business is the same. We praise leaders for stubbornly pursuing a single course of action, for crystallising strategies into punchy one-liners and removing risk and uncertainty in all areas of operation.

But here’s the problem: Successful businesses rarely move in a straight line.

Kodak’s commitment to producing film may have been admirable, but ultimately it collapsed the business. At the same time, Fuji developed its business from physical film to digital imagery – and diversified dramatically – and it now operates across multiple markets including cosmetics, chemicals and medicine.

Ambiguity has a key role to play in how businesses move forward. Far from being vague or indecisive, embracing ambiguity recognises we need to explore multiple, often competing options, then move forward in a discovery process that allows us to determine which direction is the right one for our need.

The other option is to over-invest in pre-determining the right solution to hedge your bets or stall in the pursuit of certainty.

Applying ambiguity feels counter-intuitive because we all perform best in our comfort zone, where we know all the rules and get stuff done. But we can’t learn anything new (personally or professionally) here. We need to move into our stretch zone to do that. We don’t know the rules in our stretch zone, and that is a daunting task, especially if that has financial implications.

A key part of embracing ambiguity lies in asking the right question initially. All of us tend to be too close to the challenges we work on, so we see things through the lens of our business, or even the team that we sit in. This means we can’t help but construct a question that is biased in some way.

One of the most famous – though probably apocryphal – examples of this is the tale of how NASA spent millions of dollars developing a pen that could write in zero gravity. The Russians approached the same issue but asked a different question – and used a pencil. So NASA looked at pens when their question should have been about writing or even communication.

As well as asking the right question, embracing ambiguity also demands you cast your net wide. We often miss the inspiration we seek because we refuse to broaden our vision beyond our own narrow sphere of reference.

There are deliberate ways to counter our narrow vision, including by exploring how a different sector has answered a related question. This is how the first computer mouse was developed – by using an actual ball from a roll-on deodorant – which was itself inspired by the mechanics of ball-point pens.

Ambiguity is also the magic ingredient in design thinking, if it’s done right. Re-express the challenge in human terms, develop multiple hypotheses and then set off on a discovery journey of observation, ‘doing’ and learning by discovery.

So, if you want to inject better design thinking and make better, more certain business decisions – get ambiguous.

5 tips for embracing ambiguity in problem-solving

  • Distance yourself from your problem
    Even if it’s going for a walk, or by speaking to someone from outside your industry – you’re probably too close to it at the moment.
  • Re-examine your problem question
    Have you already written an answer suggestion within your question? Go back and re-write it!Re-express it in human terms, using words and phrases with energy.
  • Take an agnostic point of view
    Don’t approach it from within your workplace silo. If you’re within a marketing team and you’re only exploring the problem with those colleagues, you’ve already assumed it’s a marketing problem.
  • Treat all paths of action as equally valid
    Accept some of the ideas and hypotheses you explore will conflict with each other, and be willing to hold these conflicting thoughts in your head until you’ve examined each fully.
  • Stretch your comfort zone
    Don’t wait for a critical challenge to come along before you try out the stretch zone. Challenge yourself frequently – little and often – make ambiguous discover a habit. Take a different route home, talk to strangers, sign up to improv.

Tags: innovation, brand strategy

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