Learning to embrace ambiguity

When I quit my job 2 years ago, I had been toying around with idea of moving into Product Management for a while.  Somewhere along the way, it dawned on me that the intersection between technology (the creation of a product) and business (the commercialisation of the product) is what I really enjoyed. However, I asked the advice of a prominent female in the Tech industry on the best way to go about doing this, her response was

Do a Computer Science masters

What? Here I am a single mother of 3, I do not have luxury of taking a year out nor the funds for returning academia. That’s not to say I didn’t try though. I applied to UCL but was rejected. Me been me, I wanted to know why if this Masters was for those who’d never Computer Science, was I rejected. Apparently the quality of applicants were very high with Chemistry graduates from Imperial and Maths graduates from Cambridge  been rejected. Here I was with my non-technical degree from the way longer than I cared to remember. Ironically, UCL offered me a full bursary with child support which I in turn rejected as I didn’t want to study anything else even though I had that option.

Anyway, since then I have experienced a number of things that have influenced where my head is at now. I stayed in a village in Nigeria with two king size blow up beds as my only luxury for three weeks (yes, my kids came with me). I started to think about the infrastructural challenges in the places I visited, how resources could be re-thought, re-distributed, re-used by local communities, consumers and traders, wondered how you change behaviour and deeply entrenched ways of thinking. My relationship with my local council became strained and peppered with friction due to misinformation, poor knowledge share within teams and inefficient processes. My experience of the education system and with educators changed when my son was officially classified as dyslexic.

The constraints, behaviours, attitudes, challenges and questions about these experiences brought me back full circle back to Product Management. Well, Design to be more precise. In continually considering how you could reduce friction, rethink process, increase information flow, share knowledge based on these experiences and been obsessed with UX (this has actually been ongoing thing grrrr for almost 10 years), I stumbled across IDEO’s Field Guide to Human Centered Design last year. Taking things one step further, I recently enrolled on a 7 week course to practically apply it.

Now, you know when someone warns you how hard something is going to be but you totally dismiss it.

Nah, I got this

you’re thinking to yourself. Three days ago I read through the second course readings and workshop handouts. That was my Oh shit! moment. It suddenly clicked that the next 5-6 weeks belonged to AcumenHCD.

Our free space to collaborate sorted courtesy of Edspace Hoxton, our time keeper at the ready with this stop watch, we got to work on the Inspiration phase.  I am always surprised by how the same question can elicit such difference responses from different people. How we are influenced by our personal experiences, life stages, attitudes, life and economic circumstances in our assumptions about what we know and we need to find out about. I’ve always been aware of the reaction you have when someone suggests something that would never cross your mind and how this sets your mind racing into other possibilities. The importance of forming a team with different rather than obvious expertise now made perfect sense.

We flew through the first two tasks, even managed to finish 10 minutes early on the third task so took a short break. Then we got to the fourth task, we just couldn’t agree on how we had to tackle it. Why? Because this very linear way of thinking has been chiselled into our conscious over a long period of time. Those differences in how we responded to the same question earlier was now stomping rather than propelling us forward. We couldn’t get past the concept of identifying all the potential people we could speak to vs the method of how we identify those people. Considering all the different people – direct and peripheral – who might be affected by the challenge as opposed to do some research then identify the people was a big talking point. The idea of embracing ambiguity was a real challenge for some of the team. The free flow of ideas with no judgement, no constraints, accepting that we have no answers and we don’t know where all this is going is fine just doesn’t sit well in the mind when corporate life has taught you to think in such a streamlined and prescribed way. We all have a way to go before letting go of our learnt ways of approaching problem solving and methods that lead to solutions. We all had to learn to embrace ambiguity.

We want to give ourselves the permission to explore lots of different possibilities so that the right answer can reveal itself
Patrice Martin, Co-Lead and Creative Director, IDEO.org

We left an hour after we’d scheduled to be out of there and we still have not completed Task four. We all agreed to meet up on Sunday to complete the remaining tasks. Yes AcumenHCD has now taken over our weekends. As one of our team member said

There is no slacking on this course

The reality of the time and mindset commitment had truly hit home for all six of us.