November 2013

Being Comfortable with Ambiguity

by Sarah Thrift on November 20, 2013

Keeping Open to Possibilities

Developing good strategy is a tricky thing to do.

It means asking expansive, open-ended questions. It means being creative and, at least at the outset, not limiting possibilities. It also means hitting times of ambiguity, of confusion, times when you are not sure if you are down a blind alley and wasting time or if you are on the verge of an important breakthrough.

Michael Gelb, in his book “How to think like Leonardo Da Vinci”, talks of 7 types of intelligence which the great Leonardo had. One of these is “sfumato”, a willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty.

“Sfumato” literally means “going up in smoke” in Italian and art critics use this term to describe a painting technique in which there are no clear outlines. Areas are blended into one another through tiny brushstrokes, making for a hazy effect – Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa exhibits the technique. As Michael Gelb puts it, “keeping your mind open in the face of uncertainty is the single most powerful secret of unleashing your creative potential.”

Essentially, our human mind doesn’t gel with uncertainty. Our mind wants to connect and categorize information. Our mind wants to make patterns with information, as soon as it gets it – join the first few dots into a shape immediately, rather than wait and see what other dots may yet emerge, and what other shapes they may suggest.

This means that to develop strategy, we need to work against the natural inclination of the mind. If we close, if we rush to narrow down options in pursuit of getting something, we miss out on the richness of possibilities.

We need to stay open and become comfortable with uncertainty. It is from this uncertainty that real insights and possibilities – the very foundation of strategic options – can emerge.