Being comfortable with not being sure is an important part of doing social innovation. We call it being in the grey. That means we try to feel at ease with ambiguity and uncertainty so that we are open to new ideas.
Being in the grey is a mindset – a way of being and thinking – rather than a tool or method. It’s the opposite of a black-and-white or straight-path mindset. Rather than presuming that problems are clear cut and the solutions are obvious, it is about accepting that we live in a complex, uncertain world.
Planning in the health and social care spaces can sometimes be long and drawn out. We know we’re not the only ones to have felt that sometimes too much energy is spent talking about challenges, instead of doing something to resolve the challenges. This connects with another of our emerging mindsets – thinking is good, doing is better.
However, this frustration we feel with drawn out planning and talk-fests can lead all of us to leap to conclusions and rushed solutions. We do this out of our frustration at inaction and our fear of the unknown and unpredictable. Sometimes this fear and frustration leads us to reach for old, familiar solutions that can help us feel powerful in the face of overwhelming challenge.
As social innovators and designers, we need to look, listen and feel, as well as act. Time spent asking the right questions, being curious, and unpacking what we find can produce deep and powerful insights.
Being in the grey can feel frightening. We don’t know exactly where we are going or how we are going to get there. We have to admit how little we know. We have to sacrifice the familiar for the new and risky.
Each time you stay present with fear and uncertainty, you’re letting go of a habitual way of finding security and comfort.
~ Pema Chodron
But the grey can also be liberating. When there are no quick and definitive answers, we are free to explore and to imagine other possibilities. As Patrice Martin, Creative Director and Co-Lead at IDEO.org says, embracing ambiguity gives us “permission to explore lots of possibilities so that the right answer can reveal itself.”
Sometimes we need to step outside our comfort zone in order to be creative or innovative. Most innovate change projects include creative thinkers from outside the sector we are working in. These ‘outsiders’ bring in fresh thinking, raise good questions, suggest interesting ideas, and provide new ways of framing old problems. They don’t let their lack of knowledge or uncertainty in a particular area hold them back. Instead, they thrive in the grey space and ride the bumpy wave of ambiguity to get to places we hadn’t yet reached.
IDEO’s playful video on embracing ambiguity.
Like the designers at IDEO, we experience fog in our work. Sometimes the grey cloud is a huge, abstract question we are trying to answer, like “How might we support positive parenting?” At other times, ambiguity arises from the competing needs and perspectives of the people affected by the issue, which is often made murkier by all kinds of influences and connections the issue has in a large, complex system.
It’s natural to crave a sense of predictability and control – yet it’s dangerous to assume we know all we need to know and can see into the future. Instead of fearing the unknown and unpredictable, we need to dive freely into the grey space of playing, testing and learning. This keeps us asking questions and exploring new possibilities.
I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.
~ Gilda Radner