Leaders Need These 3 Qualities to Thrive in Uncertainty

Tim Brown

In this episode of our Creative Confidence Series, Tim Brown, IDEO Chair and former CEO of IDEO for 19 years, shares his perspective on the qualities necessary for creative leaders in today’s unpredictable business and economic conditions. He discusses what we can do to find the opportunity in ambiguity and design and build better systems to meet the needs of the future.

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Today, uncertainty is everywhere. Businesses that have sold cars for 100 years are rethinking their strategy and planning for a future with autonomous vehicles. Our economy is in flux with automation and the loss of manufacturing jobs, tariffs impacting trade and supply chains, and the imminent effects of climate change on our environment. All that to say, this moment we’re in feels like a pretty big question mark. If that makes you a little queasy, that’s alright—but don’t hold onto that sense of fear for too long.

“The opportunity to forge completely new types of solutions and ways forward not only has never been more possible than it is today, but it's also never been more necessary than it is today,” says Tim Brown, IDEO Chair.

At IDEO, we’ve worked hard to shift our mindset around uncertainty to one of curiosity and excitement. We value embracing ambiguity—finding the opportunity in the gray space between your comfort zone and the next big idea.

As a leader, Tim is adamant that this moment has all the ingredients you need to spearhead impactful work. You just need to tap into your creativity and cultivate these three skills Tim says leaders need to make the most of an uncertain future.

Convening power and coalition building

The problems of today are too big for one person or organization to solve alone. We need many people bringing a vast diversity of perspectives to begin to think about old challenges in new ways. That’s why the first leadership ability Tim sees as being crucial in moments of uncertainty is the ability to convene people and build coalitions.

Think of this ability as one to activate both across organizations and within them. A leader who has the influence and ability to convene people has the upper hand. It’s not only about the size of your network. You must establish a reputation for working well with others and bring people together for the right purpose—defining the question.

“The right unit of exploration is the question, not the solution,” Tim says. “We tend to think we bring people together to brainstorm solutions. But unless you agree on the question, it's very hard to get people to come up with solutions.”


“The right unit of exploration is the question, not the solution.”
Tim Brown


Holding short- and long-term views simultaneously

Particularly in times of uncertainty, leaders must be able to think about the short- and long-term simultaneously. It can be tempting to focus on the most pressing near-term issues, but Tim says the “willingness to operate in multiple dimensions—now and in the future, fast and slow—is a reality of the way we have to work today.” To be competitive in the present, our solutions must stay relevant in the years to come. And to do that, we must be thinking about what’s next.

To practice this multi-state thinking, Tim says to first clarify your vision for the future. We actually know a good amount about what the world will look like in years to come—predictions for population and demographics, increased computing power, climate change and more help to paint a picture of the needs and challenges we will face. Great entrepreneurs have a vision of the future they’re excited about, and they’re confident enough to build a business around it. On the flip side, “many of the startups that don't go anywhere are ones led by people who don't have a point of view about the future,” Tim says. Their solutions are only relevant today and become quickly outdated.

When uncertainty about the future causes companies to focus on immediate solutions, we run into more competition. “The problem with solving for today is that everybody else is doing the same thing.”

Next, help your team connect with your shared purpose. Having a clear purpose enables people to work collectively without a top-down structure—a necessity when an organization is in flux. Then, practice asking bigger questions to pull back and see the big picture. Will what you’re working on be relevant in three or five years? What are the changes happening in the world that you should be incorporating into your thinking? Designers Charles and Ray Eames illustrated this concept in their famous short film, Powers of Ten. When designing a chair, they’d also think about the whole room. Thinking ahead means identifying emerging issues and bringing them into your work now.

Enabling teams to work faster to match the pace of change

The nature of change is that it shortens time horizons. The pace and energy of innovation must match the pace of change. When cycles of corporate innovation are years long, the solution becomes irrelevant before it’s ready to launch.

To solve for this pace mismatch and forge ahead through uncertainty, creative leaders must enable their teams to work faster and smarter. Short bursts of work with cross-functional teams in the form of design sprints and rapid explorations are a good solve. At CoLab, IDEO’s platform for collaborative impact, participants from several organizations work together in sprints to fast forward their progress. Tim says this style of agile work in one to two week increments turns out to be more effective than traditional waterfall methods. Instead of convening a team for one hour a week on a priority project, imagine making progress 40 times faster by designing a one-week sprint.

Look to the Government Digital Service for inspiration. In 2011, the UK founded the new government agency and charged them with finding a solution to eradicate the massive overspending of the government on technology platforms. Using a design sprint system and a human-centered approach, they simplified the UK’s existing 270 websites delivering services to citizens down to one single website—an alpha build that was created in 10 weeks. Over 18 months, the project fully launched and saved £4.1 billion in expenses. It was radically successful, because it was radically simple and fast. The takeaway? “Execution is strategy,” Tim says of the agile approach. “Unless you’re building things, you don’t have a strategy.”


“One of the greatest weapons that we have against uncertainty is creativity. It's how we forge something new out of it.”
Tim Brown


Example: Leveraging uncertainty for innovation in the circular economy

The circular economy is one place where uncertainty prevails. The goal with a circular system is to make something so that the value stays inside of the system. It’s rethinking how businesses and methods of manufacturing are shifting and how the practice of design needs to shift alongside it. The ambiguity is so great in this space that we’re open to imagining new ways forward that we would have thought of as impractical or unrealistic even a few years ago.

For example, in the OpenIDEO NextGen Cup Challenge, the ideas that are getting investments are about reusable packaging—solutions which wouldn’t have been seen as credible before. In the Challenge, a call to design a fiber cup that can be recoverable on a global scale, organizations who are typically competitors collaborated on new solutions. Entrepreneurs in this space have believed in reusability for a long time. Now, thanks to the opportunity presented by the great need and desire for solutions that will lessen the impact of manufacturing on our environment, the time is right for buy in from others.

As Tim moves out of his long standing role as IDEO CEO and into his new position as Chair, he’s reflecting on the opportunity for himself in this moment of transition. “What I'm most excited about is how to use that convening power to have the most possible impact over the next 10 years,” he says. It’s time to harvest those skills he’s cultivated over a 30-year career and think about what’s next.

“One of the greatest weapons that we have against uncertainty is creativity,” he says. “It's how we forge something new out of it.”

Learn the skills and mindsets of creative leadership from Chair of IDEO Tim Brown in his online course Leading for Creativity.

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