Mindsets of Public Design Bureau: Accepting Ambiguity

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Mindsets of Public Design Bureau: Accepting Ambiguity

What’s the mindset
Ambiguity arises when contexts, meanings, or futures are unclear (basically all the time!). Accepting ambiguity is recognizing this uncertainty and being okay with the not knowing, at least temporarily. When we imagine potential futures, whether in our lives or while working on a project, there are infinite possible outcomes and ways to do things. We will never be fully certain! Accepting ambiguity is closely tied to the mindsets of iteration and optimism: the continual process of making things and getting feedback gives us further clarity, and we can continue down our chosen path because we believe things can change. 

Why it’s important
Accepting ambiguity is what gives us the space to explore and try new things. If we waited around for full clarity and certainty, we would never get started – the topics we work within are too complex to ever be fully clear. That complexity can lead people to get stuck or to avoid trying to address a problem because they’re overwhelmed by the many open questions. By accepting ambiguity, we can admit that we don’t have the answers and take steps towards finding them. It also allows us to imagine potential futures without needing to have all the details worked out. Accepting ambiguity doesn’t make the open questions go away, but it carves out space for creativity and intentional decision making through that uncertainty. 

Embracing ambiguity in the real world
Party planning is something we both love, but is full of ambiguity. There are hundreds of decisions to make (many of which influence each other) and it can be hard to decide where to start. Even a simple dinner party can bring a mess of unanswered questions. You can start with the date or the location, but there’s so much you still don’t know. What time will work best for your guests, keeping in mind the location, the weather, and the time of sunset? You might choose your decorations, but without knowing how many people will come, it’s hard to pick out the drinks and food. If you don’t know the drinks and food, you don’t know what silverware or cups you need. Accepting ambiguity helps you get started with your planning, taking it one decision at a time and moving toward answers. Wedding planning guides are a good example of a tool that helps couples break down party planning into buckets of unknowns that you clarify as you make other, related decisions. As you get closer to the event, you can fill in more details, including the schedule, the supplies you need, and maybe even back up plans for uncertainties that remain (looking at you, weather in St. Louis). This process requires patience and a willingness to not know — but results in a great time for all your guests. 

Embracing ambiguity in design
Ambiguity (and the need to accept it) is threaded throughout the design process. One place where ambiguity is particularly obvious is during synthesis, or meaning-making. Usually, we’ll start synthesis with a pile of disparate pieces of data, which might include stories from interviews, observations from physical space, quantitative survey results, systems models, and input from partners and stakeholders. At this point, we don’t know what it means yet, and we don’t know where the project will go from here. It can feel equal parts exciting and nerve wracking, but we trust the synthesis process and jump in. As we begin to sort and connect these pieces of information, hundreds of insights and potential opportunities begin to appear. Our puzzle is to determine which bits of information and which opportunities are actually important to focus on. Through an iterative process of reviewing data, seeking input, and clarifying our direction, synthesis ends with a specific set of stories of opportunities that move towards action. The ambiguity is never completely resolved—there are always other potential paths or interpretations—but we have to accept the remaining ambiguity and be content that we’ve made a set of intentional decisions based on the information we had.

How we cultivate ambiguity
Accepting ambiguity runs counter to the certainty-driven culture that dominates most working experiences, so practicing it can be challenging. Some suggestions for keeping ambiguity in your mind and actions include: 

  • Have a structure that makes decisions feel intentional, even with ambiguity. The design process is an outline that allows teams to stay in ambiguity, but not forever. Eventually, it is time to move to the next phase, and the team will have to make a set of intentional choices in order to move forward. 
  • Create a thoughtful timeline that moves you forward step-by-step. Your structured process should have specific time-based markers, so you can be sure you’re making progress along the way. 
  • Define what you must know, and accept what will remain unknown. Be clear with yourself and your team about what components you have to figure out to move forward, while acknowledging that there are some things that will be figured out later. You need the decision-making space to focus on the things that have to happen first. 
  • Make working through ambiguity iterative. While ambiguity means you won’t have the final answer right away, that doesn’t mean you can’t get closer to the final answer. Being iterative in your understanding or your proposed solutions gives you something tangible to work with, even if it’s not the final answer.

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