The surprising way Ambiguity can actually boost your innovation

A few years ago I hiked Half Dome in Yosemite. After miles of hiking and what felt like a million switchbacks, I stumbled over a mini-incline and saw the top of Half Dome stretching up before me. 

There it was: my goal. 

It was terrifying. Also, exhilarating. 

The surprising way ambiguity can actually boost your innovation

Standing on top of that rock I was able to look down on the landscape of Yosemite around me and see just how far I’d come. The view was breathtaking.

This summer when I was handed an incredibly ambiguous project with no clear objectives, I was suddenly reminded of that hike up Half Dome. // Ambiguity is your Frenemy // Half Dome is terrifying and beautiful all at once.

This hike was especially memorable because throughout the most challenging parts, I couldn’t even see the peak. It was as if my hiking buddies and I struggled up steep inclines, rocky trails, and punishing hail storms for absolutely no reason. (Pro Tip: Don’t wear shorts in a hailstorm. Your legs will regret it.) But when we made it to the top, everything was clear. And really, really high up.

Sometimes you don’t even know what the goal is, just that at the end of 2 months you need to have some sort of results. Or maybe you do see the end goal, but the trail to get there splits off in different directions and is shrouded in hidden challenges. Maybe there’s not even a map, and you have to make it yourself.

There’s something inherently flawed about trying to tie down the benefits of ambiguity in a blog post. However, in today’s constantly changing business world, ambiguity is something we all have to deal with.

You can easily get lost, so make a plan. // Ambiguity is your Frenemy // Make a plan

How on earth are you supposed to tackle a broad and ambiguous project concept? I recently asked this of somebody who works at a company where dealing with ambiguity is a daily challenge. She suggested working backwards from the end goal, or the end customer.

For a project without any clear objective, keeping the customer top of mind gives you a solid direction. What will make their lives easier? What do they want? The rest of your plans should incorporate those needs.

It’s hard to measure success, so create your own vision.

A vague project concept can mean no proven metrics upon which to base your success. How do you know something’s a win when you don’t even have guidelines?

Ambiguity gives you freedom. No guidelines means that ROI and KPIs have no hold on you, if only because the specific problems you’re trying to solve are still unknown. Take the opportunity to free yourself from the old ways of valuing projects and visualize what you think a successful end state is. 

Use ambiguity to innovate.

With a vague concept, you can mold it into anything you want. Come up with 3 potential directions in which you could take your project and then pick one. Follow the rabbit trails, learn the ins and outs of potential avenues. You’ll probably have to start over and go back to the drawing board. The point is, your own creativity drives the project further into clarity. If you know what the project’s not, then you’re closer to what it is.

Ambiguity gives you space to mold and innovate, to make connections that don’t yet exist. This is your chance to see what else is out there, how others are tackling similar concepts, how coworkers are innovating around similar obstacles. What ways can you connect the dots between what Joe Shmo is doing with website taxonomy to what you’re doing with data analysis? 

Proof I was on Half Dome. It was cold and very, very high up.

Proof I was on Half Dome. It was cold and very, very high up.

When you feel overwhelmed and lost in the fog of ambiguity, try not to forget that you’re still on the trail. You can’t see the peak when you’re on it, so keep going. Eventually you’ll make it to the top, and everything will be clear.

How do you tackle ambiguity? Tell me in the comments!