Tolerating Ambiguity

The human mind is, for the most part, set on being in the know. We don’t like being uncertain or confused, we seek answers and explanations, a pattern we can recognize to make sense of what’s happening around us. In the face of an elusive solution, or a murky, messy problem, a lot of people are ill at ease.

This discomfort has driven invention and innovation for centuries. The need to understand and clarify and find an answer has opened the door to all sorts of advancements, especially in science and technology. In the long term, it’s served us well.

In the short term, it can be a liability It is exactly this drive to know absolutely that can get in the way of innovation. It makes us inclined to latch on to an answer too quickly rather than live in the uncertainty for a bit longer to see if a more suitable or interesting response is still at hand. Unknowingly, we trade possibility for certainty. But there’s rarely anything novel about certainty.

We see it happen in our workshops. About halfway through, the organizers get restless, the participants appear fatigued, frustrated. We should be further ahead by now, is what they’re thinking, as they glance sharply at the facilitators. This, we remind ourselves, is the hurdle to cross – or to wait out, if you will. It is usually in this moment of feeling blocked or stalled that there’s a fierce temptation to turn back, or to seize the nearest reasonable solution in order to make some progress. It might make us feel like we’re advancing, but in truth, the best course of action in those patchy moments is to stay in the fog a little bit longer.

This is when we need tolerance for ambiguity. It means staying in uncertainty, or staying with the question, despite the discomfort of not knowing the answer, or not knowing where we’re headed. It requires relinquishing control – even though a solution isn’t always guaranteed – to make room for new and emerging connections to crystalize into a clear direction. It also means accepting the fact that there might be numerous ways of answering the same question, each with different but potentially positive results.

In a study about the relationship of ambiguity tolerance and playfulness with creativity, the (then) Associate Professor at the University of Tennessee, Deborah Tegano, suggests that implicit in the description of ambiguity tolerance is its association with creativity:

Individuals who are intolerant of ambiguity are described as “disinclined to think in terms of probability” (Frenkel-Brunswik, 1948, p 268) and have been found to solve problems without adequate information (Millon, 1957). Ambiguity tolerance may be… the “willingness to accept a state of affairs capable of alternate interpretations, or of alternate outcomes,” (English & English 1958). In other words, ambiguity tolerance may be a critical link in operationalizing a measurable and understandable personality trait which is central to creative thinking.

It makes sense that if you can stand to hover in the gray areas between black and white distinction, you might get to a more creative outcome. But how do you cultivate this tolerance for ambiguity?

Stay neutral and suspend judgment. Delay, as long as you can, the expression of an opinion, positive or negative, about the topic of discussion or exploration. Don’t get distracted by the process either. Take it all in as interesting data.

Stay curious. Seek to understand the things that would otherwise induce a judgment. Avoid assumptions, and try to take on an open-minded, curious stance about what’s happening around you. Ask questions that start with “why” and say things like, “Tell me more about that.”

Enjoy the mess. The creative process is rarely neat and tidy. Consider this an opportunity that allows you to be messy. The whole world is constantly demanding that you put things in order, give yourself permission to let them stay out of order, in service to a possibly more innovative outcome.

Take time. The world that’s asking for order is demanding speed as well. Slow things down and take your time to look at things for longer, to ask more questions that you’d normally permit yourself, to generate more ideas and options before selecting among them.

Try things on. Play with questions and ideas and concepts, try them on for size. Follow threads of thought, pretend something might work and see where it takes you. Live, temporarily, with possible options to see if they are useful or not.

It’s easy to get frustrated by the lack of clarity and certainty, or annoyed by too many questions and not enough answers. In fact, that’s what usually happens when you’re right on the threshold of a breakthrough. It sounds clichéd and maybe it is, but this is when you have to trust the process. Our experience is that if you can cultivate the capacity for ambiguity tolerance, and you don’t try to shortcut the creative process, it will produce novel insights and distinct opportunities for innovation.


Keep Going:

Take this survey to determine your own ambiguity tolerance. The original article about Ambiguity Tolerance, by Else Frenkel-Brunswik, from 1949. Michael Kirton’s reanalysis of two scales of ambiguity tolerance.