Balancing Clarity & Ambiguity: What Leaders Can Learn from Designers
Clarity is comfortable. When we know what to expect, we feel secure. Even if we expect something negative, its certainty brings a convenient sense of safety.
Ambiguity, on the other hand, is marked by anxiety. It threatens to paralyze us, telling us stories of our own incompetence. Yet its presence is the only truth in a world of conflicting narratives and nuanced perspectives.
Designers know this well. Designers are experts in sitting comfortably, uncomfortably, in the stress of not knowing. Much of a designer’s job is to create clarity for others; to observe and synthesize what is, then visualize what could or should be. To do this, we define a few clear boundaries — e.g.: time, material, or scope of inquiry — then step back and let ambiguity rush in, carrying us toward creative approaches and innovative solutions.
In this way, leaders of all stripes can take a lesson from the world of design: to comfort others with clarity, we must first sit with the ambiguity ourselves. To challenge others with ambiguity, we must first clarify a few constraints.
So what are the right constraints? Where should leaders draw the lines in the sand, and where should they encourage play? With a designers’ mindset, let’s consider the three essential elements of any challenge you might face: your goals, your process for getting there, and the time and resources you have to help you do so.
Time & Resources
Strive to be as clear as possible
Understanding how much time one has to investigate something, communicate something or create something is an area where people greatly benefit from clarity. Resource constraints, to put it broadly, is an area where leaders should always strive for clarity — not in absolutes, but in trade offs. The resources allocated must be realistic given the time you have to accomplish something, and the time allocated must be realistic given the other resources available and the task at hand.
As the saying goes, “Nine people can’t make a baby in a month.”
Understanding the “resources” at your team’s disposal means understanding each person’s capabilities, the efficiency of the tools they’re working with, and any political or bureaucratic barriers they may face. Leaders can provide a real service to their teams by clearly defining (and sticking to) these constraints.
Recommended reading: 25 Software Development Principles for a Healthy Team
Visualize desired outcomes, not outputs
If you lead people in any way, you know that motivating a team without a clear target is an exercise in futility. Too many possible paths causes choice paralysis, which all the time and resources in the world can’t solve.
So you must define success. Use compelling stories and visual language to help others grasp the goal. What does your goal look like, feel like, sound like? If you aim to acquire more customers to your local coffee shop, for example, you can describe it as wanting to have a long line of neighbors chatting outside the door every morning, waiting for us to open.
And most importantly, you must depict that goal as worthwhile (it helps if you believe it). When teams spend too much time wondering, “Why am I even doing this?” turnover is quick to follow. Whereas, “I know what I’m working toward, and I’m trusted to get there” has staying power.
Your team’s output may not be exactly what you envisioned, but it may also be better. Let people surprise you.
Let people play
With a clear grasp of the time and resources available and a strong commitment to a goal, humans are incredibly imaginative. We don’t have to know how exactly to get there; in fact, it’s better if we don’t. Leaders should define the edges of the sandbox, yes, but that will only get us so far if we don’t let people play.
As toy designer Cas Holman puts it, “People who are comfortable playing tend to be more adaptable, and therefore better equipped to handle a world of rapidly changing climate and developing technology.” Ambiguity is inescapable if we are to find nuanced and appropriate responses to the wicked challenges we face today, which come with no precedent, prescription, or playbook.
Of course, every individual will need slightly different levels of clarity on process, depending on their past experiences and their experience. As a rule of thumb, less experienced individuals need more clarity defined for them. Part of the leader’s job, then, is to calibrate this correctly, and challenge them with slightly less clarity than they believe they need.
Recommended reading: 8 Key Principles for Modern Product Development Teams
Clarity does not exist; it is created. Everything we observe, read about, or interact with can be understood in multiple ways, so we often rely on leaders to shape a narrative for us, give it structure, shape and story. To rally us around a mission.
Great leaders use a balance of clarity and ambiguity to empower us, clarifying the path forward just enough to let our creativity flourish. Others exploit our thirst for certainty, confidently articulating a dire future in an attempt to push their own agendas. Fear, after all, is explicitly clear.
We are missing something, as a society, if we continue to use predefined processes to maximize what is. If we continue to behave as if how it’s been is how it will be. Our wicked challenges require collaborative innovation, and this requires leaders who think like designers, setting visionary goals, clarifying real constraints, and letting people play.
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