Last year I lead one of the toughest projects of my career. It wasn’t necessarily the one technically most challenging or the one I had the most creative ideas. For those, there are so many books and methods already published about service design and creative problem solving. So many great ideation tools already out there and I am sure so many more to be discovered or designed. It was hard because of all the things that were unknown unknowns and therefore, only in the last miles I found a way to deal with them.
What to do when the pressure builds up so high that your emotions cloud your best judgement, clog your through processes, and you get stuck in this “sense and react” mode? Yes, I am talking about the big scary “monster” living under the bed of every designer: ambiguity.
I didn’t know at the time how challenging it would be. All I felt was deep anxiety. I did trust my skills and my team, but still, I felt I was deep in unknown waters and suddenly had forgotten how to navigate.
Maybe part of my brain knew that the known methods were not going to cut it. But then, how to not feel naked, vulnerable, a “charlatan” about to be discovered?
First months were so daunting. We were suddenly partnering with one of the most prestigious design consultancies and working with with a new tier of prestige clients, so of course my first fears were all about “am I good enough to do this”?
As the project developed and I learned my ways among people and got the trust of the client and the team, it started to get better. I started to remember my old tools and constantly pushed to use them - I wanted to do things the way I knew how to and I knew I was good at. But it created a lot of overwork for the team, while we were still delivering at subpar “performance”.
Only when I was able to first - break the “idealization” of people we were working with and see them as talented peers - and second - let go of any expectation of outcomes and processes I had gotten used before - only when I let go of my need to have a plan and follow it constantly to “measure progress and results”, was when we actually started to flourish as a team and do our best work.
Don’t they say better late than ever? That was still my overachiever blaming myself for not getting it right faster. As I was reading "the lean start-up" by Eric Ries, a brilliant section came to my rescue: failing is a prerequisite for learning.
Thinking bout this experience as a "venture", helped me transform my emotions into insights, which now I can share with you. My way of coping with ambiguity is:
Keep making assumptions and keep validating them along the way.
Is it good to have a plan? Essential!
But don’t over detail and don’t get attach to it.
Keeping a mind map of everything that can go wrong or right, all the aspects of the project - from problem statement to stakeholders and their undeclared agendas - have all these assumptions around you, as a good detective would and take every chance to fact-check them, either through observing the environment around you, the “shifting sands”, or by taking the opportunity to talk to others in the process to understand where these assumptions are coming from and where others may see things going. Car rides are great moments to take advantage of being together in an informal setting and having honest conversations with the guards down.
With every new project, I always like to start with mapping all the things that I know about a problem (what is already validated), and all that I think I know or I assume about all the parts of the system. Here are a few list items:
The client’s organization and stakeholders, with each individual's main motivation (and even potential hidden agendas).
What the client asked for vs. what I think the project should be about (strategic designers tend to always reframe the problem but they forget / ignore / underestimate the need to confirm with the client the new agenda. We also bring our own agendas to the table).
What do we know about the problem/need/opportunity at hand, about current and potential audiences, employees, processes, channels and touch points.
Behavioral polarities - what could be the extreme users in this given project?
Anything available online about the context and what trends indicate "shifting sands"
Ambitions for this project, and how it may be part of a bigger agenda for the people, the organization or even the country;
Your team - how internally you want to work together and how the process may unfold - make sure your team and you are in the same page, and get everyone to align on potential risks, roles and responsibilities.
Stakeholders engagement - how much and when to bring the client onboard.
Risks along the process and challenging moments (add buffer times and/or budget for such).
It is as if you start by drawing the map of this new territory you are about to explore, starting from the known/real landmarks, and then filling the rest with your imagination.
The scary parts about ambiguity are two-fold: what is unknown now and what can or will constantly change along the way. We feel (I still do quite often) overwhelmed by the challenge and my emotions can easily take over, sending me to the vortex of overthinking: "What are we doing? What is the purpose of all this? Can I do this? Will the client respect me? Is the team trusting me? How can I guide them if I don’t even know where I am going?"
In deep despairing moments it’s easy to get lost in these questions and sink in a void of paralysis where all you want is the comfort zone of binge watching Netflix. I should know - this project made me watch the entire 10 seasons of Friends over the period of 7 months, twice! All I wanted was a safe and happy place to go to before sleeping.
So, in the end, what have I learned? A trick that most mindfulness practices and life coaches already apply and that we as designers apply all the time as well: to be able to detach yourself from the emotions for a minute, zoom out as if you were observing the entire situation from a birds-view, and think deeply to identify your own pain points and unmet needs. Then, go back to your board, your initial assumptions and see what has changed and how can you improve.
It is that simple, although not easy at first. But coping with ambiguity is all about being able to constantly separate what we know from what we assume, and make the moves needed to validate our assumptions as needs emerge or priorities shift.
The picture painted in the beginning will be very different at the end, as any real life story is.
I always loved planning because I am a dreamer, and that excitement of starting a new project full of possibilities lights me up every time. And what I realize is that mapping the assumptions and validating along the way may be hard at times because they do reflect that many of the initial dreams will not being possible, but as you discover the territory, you also discover new possibilities if you learn how to look with the right googles. And the "assumptions map" will be the best toolkit you will have to navigate, adjust the course, lead your team and build trust with the client.
As a last note, while writing this I could not stop picturing the pirate ship from the adventure tales sailing into the unknown. It is kind of like that. We need to make sure we have the map (assumptions) and keep aware to know when you should be piloting at the helm, and when you should go up to the crow's nest to see what lies ahead. Just remember that it is an adventure all along. And make sure your client and your staff are sailing in the same boat with you. When agendas clash, people may tend to create their own boats and drift to another direction, so align the course frequently and at the sight of any change.
Enjoy the adventure and do not forget to have fun! The more ambiguous the project process the more you will need to approach yourself and others with lightness, honesty, and an open heart.