4 Tips for Navigating Ambiguity

Teams can only handle ambiguity if there’s high trust.

–Suzanne Gibbs Howard, Dean of IDEO U

How to Navigate Ambiguity

Ambiguity makes people feel uncomfortable—it’s a fear amplifier. The pace of change is fast, disruption is coming from many directions, and what worked in the past just doesn’t work anymore. New technologies, global competition, radical changes in long-standing business models, and policy shifts are rampant. Meanwhile, the challenges we face in every direction—healthcare, education, financial and beyond—are more complicated than ever before. And yet, you can’t plan your way forward the way you could in the past.

When navigating ambiguity, instead of a finite plan, you’re choreographing moments where people come together to make progress. It’s about guiding people through the process even though you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s about having the right people together at the right time, not necessarily the “right” answer. And crafting the space for your team to explore and build (rather than plan) the path ahead. You need to create the contexts and conditions for your team to evolve as the world changes. Innovation is the unexpected and the breakthrough. How do you sight it on the horizon? 

1. Be Self Aware

How do you know you’re in a moment of ambiguity?

Ambiguity can be felt in moments of friction. Sometimes these are external points of friction. Colleagues pushing back against new ways of working or trying to run forward with the first possible solution. The assumptions that used to govern your system are becoming untethered. For example, the ability for employees to work remotely or the rise of sharing economies to replace single ownership preferences.

Ambiguity can also be felt internally. Do you feel yourself clenching up and pushing too hard with “the usual process” or potential solution that’s just not flowing? Ask yourself, am I in a fear operating system? What’s making me afraid? Can I name the ambiguity in this moment and engage a few trusted others in looking for a better path forward?

Recently, when working with a healthcare company, we were exploring new technologies for the future. The team kept trying to work with the technologies they had patent rights to. But when they let go of this traditional approach of considering close technologies first, their ideas improved and they actually found a solid low-tech solution.


When navigating ambiguity, instead of a finite plan, you’re choreographing moments where people come together to make progress.


2. Name the Ambiguity

As a leader, be willing to show vulnerability. By naming the unknowns, the tensions, and the fears, you open up the space to engage with them. If your team is too afraid to discuss these, you can’t learn from them or use them to your advantage to initiate rich, forward-thinking conversations. 

3. Get Curious

Reframe fears as opportunities. Give yourself room to explore the existential questions from a place of curiosity and opportunity, rather than apprehension or denial. Frame them as “What ifs?” What if we no longer had to rely on our old system of suppliers? What if our team could be globally distributed and we broke with traditional hierarchies?

Look for inspiration outside of your own challenge. Make time to ask colleagues and trusted advisors what they might do in a similar challenge. Or better yet, look for analogous challenges. What can we learn from the way other teams, organizations, or industries have evolved. What can we learn from the ways doctors have adjusted to the need for remote patient interaction? What might it look like for us to operate a more environmentally sustainable business, like Patagonia?

A recent example of this curiosity comes from a project with an automotive manufacturer dealing with the high level of ambiguity around how we’ll use cars in the future. An exercise we did with them to start understanding the future of mobility was to get out of the building and have different team members navigate the city using combinations of different modes of transportation including public transit, bikes, ride sharing, and walking.


Give yourself room to explore the existential questions from a place of curiosity and opportunity, rather than apprehension or denial.


4. Start Doing

Turn big changes into tiny steps. Pick a couple small things to try. Bill Burnett and Dave Evans authors of Designing Your Life, and the creators of the Stanford University course by the same name, recommend you don’t get caught up planning, but rather begin trying out potential new directions as prototypes. The trick is to find small experiments to get started.  

In a large telecommunication company working at the forefront of technology, one team was encumbered by their company culture, which typically enforced a culture of knowing the right answers. As an experiment, they decided to create 10 radical prototypes by sketching ideas on paper. They shared the paper prototypes with customers to learn what might be appealing in the future. And even though none of these prototypes was the answer, the team learned their way forward.

Have faith in your team. Resist the temptation to try and control the outcome of situations. Get tangible and explore the future through making and testing, rather than speculating. This can help your team feel ownership in building the future, rather than chasing it.

Help your team navigate ambiguity and become more creatively competitive. Join our Leading for Creativity online course. 


Suzanne Gibbs Howard, Founder of IDEO U
Suzanne Gibbs Howard
Dean of IDEO U
Suzanne is the founder of IDEO U and a longtime IDEO partner. She led IDEO’s global insights capability, pioneering many of the techniques now at the forefront of how businesses understand human needs. And she's passionate about helping people bring these techniques to their work.


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