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Three mindsets to navigate ambiguity as the world changes

July 2nd, 2019

Consider medieval maps. Back then, the world didn’t know what existed beyond the horizon. Would you drop off the edge of the earth? Did unknown sea creatures lurk in these uncharted lands?  When faced with the unknown, most people resort to fear; mapmakers depicted fearsome sea creatures on the outskirts of the world. But it’s only when you steer the proverbial ship past the edge of what is known that you uncover all that could be. 

Today, advances in technology, like self-driving cars and computers we can converse with, catapult us to the edge of the map—the line between the known and unknown. Innovators need to be able to solve for problems of tomorrow, and navigate all the ambiguity that comes along with that. To thrive on this edge, we have to stay curious, empathize with different perspectives and experiment with solutions.

Embrace a curious mindset

Approach the unknown with curiosity rather than fear. The wildest questions can create the biggest opportunities. A phrase I embrace to shift myself into a mindset of curiosity is “What if…” 

Take voice-powered assistants for example. Just recently, millions of people started having conversations with their devices, completely changing how they interact with technology. Initially, there was some uncertainty. People questioned things like the utility, the security and the effectiveness of voice-powered technology. However, if you lean into curiosity and consider new possibilities, rather than pitfalls, then you can work through pending challenges more effectively. For example, you might ask: What if we had an assistant that could help us with everyday tasks? What if people no longer had to type to interact with technology? What if you could have a natural conversation with your computer? What if we had the capability of 10 assistants at our fingertips? This phrase can help spark optimism and fuel innovation.

Take multiple perspectives

Once you’ve embraced a curious mindset, it’s time to start solving. Great solutions require empathy, or a walk in someone else’s shoes. I’ve found that the fastest track to empathy is to focus on the user. 

I recently taught a Stanford University class on inclusive product design. The class was made up of Stanford students, Googlers and students from the School of the Blind in Fremont, CA. Inclusive design demands that designers use the diversity of their users to challenge what’s possible, so to give all of the students a better understanding of the challenges they might solve for, we took part in a blindfolded breakfast. While it was no substitute for truly understanding the challenges of impaired vision, it helped to shift the perspective for students who had never experienced impaired vision and gave them an opportunity to empathize with the people they were designing for. Similarly, having a diversity of backgrounds, ability, upbringings and more on your team helps you to collectively see multiple perspectives. 

Another tool that helps you look at problems from new angles is what we call the “Why-How Ladder.” For example, you might begin with a problem statement like “How might we help more girls pursue STEM careers?”, and then ask “Why is that important?” This question helps you think about the bigger picture. Conversely, the question “How might we accomplish that?” helps to narrow the scope of the problem.

The road to success is paved with experimentation

Once you start to see the challenges as possibilities, you can get into the process of experimenting. More than a decade ago, I was teaching English to a group of six-year-old children in Shanghai. I found myself staring at a room of 45 kids who did not speak English, and I did not speak Chinese. But I knew that if I got it wrong on the first attempt, I could just try a new tactic. So I started experimenting with ways to teach the kids a whole new language. After a few fumbles, we started singing songs, reciting the alphabet and drawing pictures to share simple personal stories. In order to take action and thrive in this scenario, I had to be fearless in taking action—even if that action resulted in a failed attempt. Failing is all about getting feedback early on. 

The world is changing faster than ever before, and innovation is inherently ambiguous—we simply don’t know what the future is going to look like. But with these three mindsets you can navigate the waters of ambiguity and steer past the horizon of what is known to what is next.