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Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Iteration

The Power of Uncertainty

How do we help great ideas thrive? By understanding that we won't know the outcome until we explore.


Projects fail all the time because we unwittingly bake the end solution into our initial objective. Rather than enduring an uncomfortable (but highly necessary) period of ambiguity, we fall into the trap of limiting our creativity by setting a project goal that is too narrowly defined from the start.

Take the story of the American scientists and the invention of the “space pen,” for example. The scientists were given the task of designing and creating a pen to deal with the problem of ballpoint pens not being able to write in zero-gravity. They spent considerable time and money developing the idea, which resulted in using nitrogen under pressure, supplying the ink without the need for gravity.

The Russians just used a pencil. Instead of setting out to design a ballpoint pen that was gravity-free, they looked for ways of being able to write upside down.

Whether it’s true or not, this much-told tale illustrates the importance of not backing your idea into a corner early on. Creativity – and ultimately, sensible and appropriate ideas – come out of smartly identifying a problem that needs to be solved and working from there, rather than setting a narrowly defined goal that reads too much into what you want to create.

For instance, when Andrew Weinreich founded SixDegrees.com – the website that was arguably the first social network, preceding Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook – in 1997, his idea, and eventually his objective, was “What if I could share my rolodex with my friends?”*

Note what this objective does not do: It doesn’t determine how the site is structured, it doesn’t determine how it’s coded, it doesn’t even determine that the right solution is a website. What it does do is build the project objective around solving an extremely interesting problem.

Social networks may seem “obvious” now but, at that time, there were any number of ways to “solve” the problem Weinreich identified. The Internet and a “social network model” just happened to be the best solution. And if you think about it, Weinreich couldn’t have defined the objective more narrowly – like say, “Build a social network” – because social networks had not yet been invented!

In developing your own creative ideas, the best place to start is by zeroing in on an objective that finds the right balance. Here’s how to get started:

1. Seek Objectives That Guide But Don’t Define

You’ll want to develop a project objective that guides you in the right direction without defining where you should be at any point in time – and certainly not where you should end up. If your objective is too broad, the possibilities are infinite and there are no rails to bump up against to spark new ideas. If your objective is too focused (like the “space pen” example), there is no room for the exploration that leads to true innovation. An objective that strikes a balance between these two extremes will provide the most utility. It acts as a guide, but isn’t too limited or pre-determined.

 2. Think Mission, Not Medium

The greatest businesses solve problems. All too often, we get stuck defining a business by the medium it operates in; you’re a “tech company,” “consultancy,” or “media company.” Instead, we should be mission-centric and medium-agnostic in our work. In the modern day of cloud-servers, open source software, and seamless connection with the masses, it is easier than ever before to pursue your mission using many mediums.

The Behance team has taken this to heart, pursuing the objective to “organize the creative world” via a massive online network, a line of paper products, an annual conference, and even this publication, The 99U. Don’t limit yourself to a particular medium as you pursue your objectives, but stay fiercely loyal to your mission.

3. Be comfortable “working in ambiguity.”

The key to true creative problem solving is the ability to work in ambiguity – to explore the full range of possibilities without jumping to conclusions. The poet John Keats praised Shakespeare for this trait, which he called “negative capability.” As Keats defines it, negative capability “is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, [and] doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In short, we must feel comfortable moving forward without always knowing exactly where we are headed.

What’s Your Take?

How do you set project objectives? Are you comfortable working in ambiguity?

Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is a general partner for Benchmark Capital. Previously, he was Adobe’s Vice President of Community and Co-Founder & Head of Behance, the leading online platform for creatives to showcase and discover creative work. Scott has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and is the author of the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.

Comments (33)
  • dvkun

    Deadlines are the keyword to work with a successful ambiguity. In my opinion I focus in developing and over-developing my own and my team’s capabilities. It takes us to knowledge we didn’t even were considering.

  • Braze

    As an aside, I gather that the space pen story is not true; in fact ballpoint pens work just fine in zero gravity. The only reason they do not work upside down ordinarily is because of the presence of gravity. Pencils are not good in space because of the small particles of Graphite they shed. Courtesy of QI.

  • Nathan W.

    I have a folder (both on my computer and phone that sync to each other) that is simply labeled: “Wouldn’t it be cool of…” In here I place vague ideas that I think are “cool” or something that I would like to have or do myself. It is really a fun way to come up with new inventions/ventures.

  • Mike

    I think a good example of solving problems lately is an app called Zaarly. It defined the problem, “What if I could get people to bring me things I want right now?”

  • TubbyMike

    I have also read that the Space Pen story is not true and despite (or because) of the money spent it’s still a useful tool.
    What you say about not building a solution into the objectives though, does ring true however it’s worth remembering some guidance from Steve McConell’s early software development books: If you’re pushing the functional or technical envelopes of the software in more than two different directions at the same time, then what you’re doing is research, not project development. Research is not amenable to deadline-driven projects.
    My paraphrase, but a counter-balance to your arguments, as it’s important to keep focus on the desired outcomes, something I feel you develop in your first point above.
    Thanks for the interesting article. It’s something to have in mind if you’re trying to deliver creative solutions to novel problems.

  • Lani Rosales

    As a control freak, living in ambiguity is VERY difficult for me- this is a great thing for me to ponder… I’ve always admired the leaders who are so certain of every tiny detail and have everything mapped out so clearly. Time to rethink…

  • Adan Lerma

    i like this! –

    “the key to true creative problem solving is the ability to work in ambiguity”

    not sure if it’s because i often (but not always) like to work this way, but there’s enough reasons and explanations given to, well, give it a try😉

  • Bjarte Edvardsen

    Love this post!

    Yes, working in amiguity and staying open-minded is very important during projects. For me, an ideal photographic project usually starts with improvisation (a thought, a technique, a person, a place, a sketch etc.) and I let it evolve as long as I feel it need to evolve. A story might develop in this process and I might see what medium it needs to be presented in.

    I think ‘enough time’ is an essential factor. A project needs to be pushed, but not rushed too much – then it might lead to some hasty conclusions which probably won’t benefit the project. And ‘enough feedback’ is also extremely important. If just some words from a person you trust, it could be enough to keep push things forward…

    Probably a bit off-topic, but I just want to mention the 7 idea techniques (‘scamper’): Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Magnify, Put to other uses, Eliminate, Rearrange

  • Mr. Tunes

    how did three people write this post?

  • Alex Mathers

    The power of thinking, collaboration and email Mr Tunes!

  • Alex Mathers

    Thanks Braze, I’m aware that the space pen story might be something of a myth, but I used it nevertheless as a story that illustrated the point very well. However, I can see how a pencil in space could be pretty dangerous!

  • Parin Patel

    Nathan, I think I might just “borrow” that “Wouldn’t t be cool if..” folder idea of yours😉 … Reminds of the “Backburner Items” idea Scott shares in Making Ideas Happen.

  • Parin Patel

    Nice post! As a technology person, I do have a habit of including the medium as a part of the solution in the beginning. I’m caught asking the “how” for not only the problem, but the medium as well.

    But, like the saying goes, Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS)!

  • GraphicDesignBoss

    Depending on your medium, it will differ if you are an artist vs a designer like myself.

    I’m creating for others, trying to solve problems – artists (generally) create for themselves.

    From a design perspective the framework question of ‘what do we want people to do’ & who are we talking to and why should they care? guides us, from that point onwards leave it up to the designer.

  • Mike Mark

    I stumbled upon negative capability while writing a paper for one of my classes at BU. Since, the notion has become a key value by which I live. This value helps me to rid my mind of expectations, to practice acceptance, and to appreciate what I have available. Great post!

  • Jeffrey Davis

    Alex et al: I agree: Creatives have to work (and play) with uncertainty. One key is your last suggestion & to stay in confusion long enough to let it become fertile confusion. That in and of itself can become a habit or practice. To do so though demands that we find ways to trump the reptile within that constantly seeks the familiar and constantly wants to slot everything unknown into known categories. There are ways, too, to guard against “happy endings” – the tendency to wrap up a project in a nice and tidy fashion because of 1) time pressures and 2) exhaustion.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Geoff Zoeckler

    I recently had the pleasure of working with a long time NASA Director and he confirmed that the US space pen vs. Russian pencil is not true. That is unfortunate, because I love the point that the factitious story makes.

    Interesting challenge to not get distracted solving a solution when you should still be taking time to solve the problem. It is very hard to get clients to realize the difference in the middle of a brainstorming session.

  • Astronut

    The pencil story is more about engineers than anything. Engineers want to spend time on a difficult challenge. They get paid to solve complex problems. To use a pencil, you just need an errand boy to go buy a box at the local store. Therefore the Space pen is a better solution when you have a lot of cash and engineers on the payroll😉

    Of course, with NASA’s current budget, the best solution is a stick in the dirt or maybe hand shadows.

  • Faisal Rehman

    There are 6 steps in Project Management. 1. Problem Identification, 2. Problem Definition, 3. Project Design, 4. Project Development, 5. Project Implementation, and 6. Project Evaluation.
    What has been discussed in this article are covered as:
    a. Objective —> Problem Identification and Problem definition
    b. Medium / Mission —> Project Design and Project Development
    c. Working in Ambiguity —> Project Evaluation
    I would say that all above points are already covered in Project Management Guide. This article is only the explanation of these predefined Steps.

  • AhmadAlsayegh

    very good article, i have been always scared of taking steps without any certain results, but i guess i should brave up and move forward, the first thing I am going to do is quit the job i hate, and “find another income source”, this is an objective that guide but does not define!
    I guess point 3 is what makes entrepreneur exist

  • AhmadAlsayegh

    it is about how you look at it…

  • George Macfleur

    As one who has always felt comfortable in ambiguity, my cognitive dissonance lay in working for a manager who cannot tolerate uncertainty, limits or reduces scope constantly to the point that the deliverables cannot handle contingency or anything that cannot be well predicted. Theoretically, PMBOK allows for uncertainty, but I feel it doesn’t prepare well enough project managers for leaving room for the ambiguity mentioned in this article, and which, I believe, must always be made explicit.

  • Jeffrey Davis

    George: I agree. PMBOK outlines similar steps, but there’s little guidance in how to deal with uncertainty/ambiguity/confusion. And there’s zero guidance in navigating terrains such as paradox that might lead to the break-throughs necessary before project evaluation. You also identified, through your own experience. a key problem: employees who feel comfortable with ambiguity who work for managers with no tolerance for it.

  • Rob Caminos

    Having run into this problem many times I start with accepting the fact that we all have our dark masters to answer to. Managers that want a detailed road map usually have their own superiors to answer to. Even the CEO of a fortune 500 has to answer to the shareholders. I try to reach a compromise by offering them detailed deliverables for the short term (usually three months) and vague long term deliverables for everything else. We always drive home the point that long term deliverables are very likely to change since it is impossible to predict the outcome of short term goals. Then again I’m applying this to a software development project where you do typically start out with a pretty good idea of what the end product is going to be.

  • Rob Caminos

    I do agree with many of the points of this article but I have a small beef with the example they give. I love my Fisher Space Pen and never go anywhere with out it. Yes they could have used a pencil in zero gravity but I suspect that sharpening a pencil in zero g can be a pain. The space pen writes on anything, and most importantly always writes. Not once have I written an incomplete letter with my space pen which is why I bought the thing in the first place. Also the space pen became a new business contributing to the economy.

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