I had the great opportunity to join the staff and 35 amazing people for the Ambiguity Summit at the Hugo Plattner institute of Design on the Stanford University Campus in the fall. Known as the d.school and founded by David Kelley of the famed IDEO consulting firm. The institute offers students from all disciplines and schools the opportunity to learn the foundational skills of design thinking, and to promote and develop the practice of good design.
I learned that ambiguity is not uncertainty, but it may cause it – but is better defined as the ability to hold two or more meanings at the same time – that managing ambiguity an essential element of any designer’s work, and at the end of the day we are all designers! I got to hang with some really smart and creative people from game design, architecture, experience design, social activists, photographers, publishers, and philosophers. From Google and Airbnb, from Denmark, Silicon Valley and New York. We were there to road test some new curriculum and contribute to an ongoing project on the topic.
Meet in the Papua New Guinea sculpture Garden:
I learned or confirmed that I’m pretty comfortable walking into ambiguous situations. As you might expect the pre-event instructions were (ahem) ambiguous, containing only the time, location, and duration along with the prompt to prepare a three-minute talk on the topic How does ambiguity manifest in my discipline? I had to figure out where the sculpture garden was on campus, who knew there even was one? Before I’d even started I’d learned something.
I learned a lot about designing a great learning experience: I loved the three minute ‘talk blocks’, the form factor was perfect. People could not resist sharing their personal as well as professional relationship with ambiguity and I felt I wanted to get to know everyone based on the three-minute glimpse into them and their world, learned from a graphic designer that magicians exploit our neural need to focus on one thing to craft their magic. I head a game designer talk about his experience designing a game with no rules. I heard from a wonderful woman who stormed the emoji committee to ensure the character set included a dumpling and a more diverse and representative set of icons. I heard from someone who studied sex parties and took a group of morticians on an axe throwing adventure. A synthetic biologist and DJ who makes beats from DNA samples. Designing into the event whitespace and time for the personal really increased my level of engagement and the strength of the cohort.
In line with the design thinking practice I always felt a slight pressure of time and the pace of the event was exquisite – There was time for reflection, diverse activities in various sized groups as well as 1:1 interaction. There was great conversation and I always felt us being moved to the next activity just that bit before we were ready, and just as the conversations were getting interesting. The result everyone was hungry for more and I found myself rushing to make sure I’d had a conversation with everyone as the program wound down – Managing time and varying the pace of activities created time for synthesis and reflection but kept a sense of urgency that compelled me to stay engaged.
I learned that drawing and writing things down, making models and prototyping is easier than you think and a powerful way to clarify your thinking, convey ideas to others in powerful ways.
Ambiguity and Me:
As a technical writer and trainer in the (at least so far) binary world of computers and software, I reflected that much of my work was essentially a ‘war on ambiguity.’ The mission was to simplify the world for my reader or student, strive for an active voice, create models of simplicity and clarity. Provide checklists, acronyms, assessments and quizzes to help people frame new concepts, establish new behaviors and retain new information. In sales readiness our focus was to encode and simplify a pitch or value proposition and make the essential facts sticky and easy to learn and remember. The tools of my trade – learning paths, terminal objectives, job task analyses, curriculum guides serve to create order and to organize the world. , not a lot of room for ambiguity here.
But outside of my work practice, I began to reflect that many of the good things in my life stem from ambiguity; In art – Rothko, Picasso, and Basquiat, the ambiguity in philosophy of Sartre and DeBeauvoir, and almost any 20th century film, play or novel in literature, and most of all in humor. In my life times of movement or shift from a comfortable situation that felt unambiguous, to a new and ill-defined situation, an inflection point or a time of great change or movement often resulted in the most learning and the most personal growth.
The Art of Ambiguity for Instructional Design:
And as I think about the future of workplace learning and talk to instructional designers who have made this their work, I see the challenge of ambiguity everywhere in today’s frenetic workplace environments; Where is the source of truth? How can I organize content so that it stands out from the crowd? Where can I find subject matter expertise? How can I create the space and time for my learners to truly study and learn? The tools and processes that I’ve always worked with, seem to take longer than the half-life of the information and knowledge that I’m trying to disseminate. My leaners expect the quality and choice they get from consumer grade services, and I don’t have a Netflix budget! 19th Century tools for 21st century challenges!
I’m constantly on the lookout for new tools and models to create thriving learning cultures and that are relevant to the modern a workplace. and I’m convinced that the design thinking approach can bring a lot to our practice. More than that, a healthy dose of ambiguity can be a powerful technique.
- Provide less clarity and encourage learners to seek it for themselves
- Focus on the learner their unmet and unarticulated needs
- Design for experiences not outcomes
- Love the Cohort and create opportunities for them to collaborate learn from each other and bond
- Leave lots of whitespace to allow participants and learners to bring their own expertise, but keep the pace crisp
We should de-escalate our ‘war on ambiguity’ and embrace the ambiguous and uncertain. Your learners will thank you. In an increasingly complex world, organizing the proliferation of content on behalf of your learners is an increasingly impossible task, so just don’t do it. What could be more valuable than helping our learners thrive in an ambiguous and increasingly uncertain world.
Thanks d.school, and thanks fellow a.mbiguists