Today, as Nigel and I set up for a reflection session with a team we are currently working with, I reflected on where their Design Thinking journey started and some of their fears and aspirations.  In our very first session with the group, I asked each participant to select then share the designer mindsets they felt would most challenge them.  More than 90% of the group of twenty-five chose ambiguity.

Had I actually stopped and thought about that room full of people who feared ambiguity for a second I would have thought to myself, ‘How do you teach a framework that is inherently ambiguous to a bunch of people who are afraid of ambiguity?’.

I did of course stop briefly and asked the group to reflect on why ambiguity, but I didn’t run screaming from the room.  I knew that whilst I could not control the ambiguity of what they would learn and then eventually design, I could make the journey itself a little less ambiguous.

One way I do this is through the use of tools that allows teams to frame what it is they are trying to achieve from each phase of the project. Framing, for me, removes the ambiguity around what we are trying to achieve and how we might go about it so that we are more open to the ambiguous nature of our insights, our ideas or the feedback we might get from a solution.

A framing technique that I learned from IDEO, that I regularly use starts with these two questions.

1.      What do we know?

2.      What don’t we know?

Depending on where I am in a project, I might then build on these with questions such as:

1.      What do I need to learn?

2.      Who can I learn from?

3.      Where might I go to learn?

When you or your team next get a new ‘challenge or opportunity’ before rushing into providing that all-important answer, take a bit of time out to put the following exercise to the test.


  • Get your team together.  (Extra points if you can get some people outside of your team.)  Supply the usual post-its and sharpies.
  • Describe the challenge to the group.
  • Get the team up in front of two flip charts that contain these two questions.  (Resist the temptation to sit around a table.)
    • What do we know?
    • What don’t we know?
  • Ask the team to write their responses on post-it notes in silence (to avoid group think).  Do one question at a time. Take 5-10 minutes per question.
  • When you have completed these first two questions, take a step back, review the comments, group them into themes under each question, discuss as a group anything you see that surprises or challenges you.
  • Come to a consensus on what you don’t know.
  • You can now decide if you have enough information to answer the challenge or if you need to discover more in order to come up with a meaningful solution.
  •  If you need to discover more, take a 3rd flip chart poster with the question ‘what do we need to learn’ on it.  Now ask the team to review what you don’t know and re-frame each item as something you need to learn more about in order to really solve the challenge you have been given.
  • You now have the basis for the first step in Design Thinking – DISCOVER.  You can then have a go at considering who you could learn from (your user) and where you might learn more.

At the end of this session, your team should have a collective understanding of the challenge you are setting out to solve. You should also be better aligned around the different aspects of the challenge you need to discover more about.  I have seen many teams start a project thinking they all understand the challenge only to get a few weeks into it and discover that they actually have set out to solve the wrong problem.

Coming back to good old ambiguity.  I find the ambiguity of my work to be the most exciting and liberating part of what I do but I empathise with those who find not having all the answers unsettling.  My advice is set out to control the things you can. Approach each stage of your project with a clear understanding of what you are trying to achieve.  Through quick exercises like the one above, you can make your overall journey less ambiguous and allow yourself to be more open to the ambiguity of what you might find, learn and create.

I would love to hear how you deal with ambiguity, get in touch with me at


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