The ABCs of Creativity: Ambiguity

Most people want an easy answer, and the simpler the explanation the better. Unfortunately, these answers and explanations leave much to be desired, and they stymie creativity. Creativity is the process that humans go through when they create something new. It involves not knowing where one is going as much as it involves having a goal. While the two may seem to be diametrically opposed, they are actually both appropriate for creativity.

Ambiguity is the idea that you don’t know the answer. If you knew the answer, you wouldn’t need creativity to solve the problem unless you were looking for a better answer. Trying to find a path to the goal, you look for solutions, you don’t know which one will work or what you’ll find, but you stay the course and keep moving forward. With each experiment you get closer to your goal, but you don’t know when you’ll get there.

Nike faced this issue of ambiguity in 1971 when, as head of Blue Ribbon Sports, Phil Knight realized the relationship he had with the Japanese shoe manufacturer that would become Asics was headed south according to Popular Mechanics. He needed an innovation to stay in the shoe game.

Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman was facing a problem with his athletes in Eugene. A new urethane tack had been installed at the university and the athletes were having problems gaining traction on it. Metal spikes couldn’t be used because they destroyed the track. Bowerman looked at everything and anything that could help provide traction. He needed something that would work on multiple surfaces. He needed to be able to make a pattern on the soles of the shoes.

His wife decided to help him on a Sunday morning and made waffles. Bowerman looked at the waffle maker and thought it could work to make his soles. He ruined that waffle maker but was undeterred and went out to get more waffle makers. He had his sole, and Nike had its game changing innovation for athletic shoes.

Bowerman, and Nike, had to go through a period of ambiguity while he was searching for the answer to his problem. There was no guarantee that he would solve the problem and there was no template that showed him how to solve it. He had to keep looking in spite of earlier failures. He had to deal with ambiguity.

When you’re confronted with a problem that you don’t know how to solve, or even where to begin to solve it, you could walk away. Or you could look at it as a challenge and enter the ambiguous path that leads to creativity and innovation.

For more on creativity, check out these links and get “Disneyland Is Creativity: 25 Tips for Becoming More Creative” and “Penguinate! Essays and Short Stories: Become more Creative for a Better Life and World.”