The Designer's Mindset // Comfort with Ambiguity

Our consulting engagements, in-person workshops, and online courses begin with a discussion of the designer’s mindset. While many business leaders do not identify as “designers,” much of their creative thinking can benefit executives in their day-to-day leadership and management activities.

Let’s highlight the first of three mindsets our co-creators keep returning to in engagement after engagement.


Comfort with Ambiguity

For this blog, we assume ambiguity is a staple of our daily lives, and thus, we will focus on our reaction to such stimuli.

What percentage of our day-to-day activity passes without a second thought? Our guess is ninety-eight to ninety-nine percent. We do not consciously breathe, take the next step, or ask why we eat with a fork.

The one-to-two percent of daily activities are the experiences we reflect on as we commute home, take a shower, and try to fall asleep. It is the disconnect between uncertain stimuli and our anticipated outcomes that creates stress and etches these moments into our mind.

A Low Threshold for Ambiguity

Leaders with a low ambiguity threshold are characterized by:

  • the “need for categorization,” such as, “is it black or white"?”

  • the “need for certainty,” betting on known odds even if unknown odds could be more favorable, and

  • an inability to allow the coexistence of positive and negative features in the same object.

The downside of a low threshold is leaders are hamstrung when “the lack of information makes it difficult to assess risk and correctly make a decision.” Does this attitude exist in your organization?

These leaders have difficulty with breakpoints in the market when a new technology upsets “the way we’ve always done things.” Imagine a railroad executive doubling-down on steel rails when air travel first emerged, because it struck him as a perceived threat and a source of discomfort.

black and red balls.jpg

A High Threshold for Ambiguity

The good news is comfort with ambiguity is not an inherent trait; it can be learned and situationally applied. Imagine facing uncertainty, its complexity, and novelty, and emerging more curious and with a positive attitude!

While the literature debates how to measure ambiguity, Daniel Ellsberg introduced the Ellsberg Paradox in 1961.

With the chance to win $100 by correctly guessing the color of the ball drawn from an urn, would you choose:

  • urn A, which contains 50 black and 50 red balls OR

  • urn B, which contains an unknown number of each, yet totals 100 balls?

Now, imagine one urn carries a lethal dose of electricity. Would that change your decision? Research says it would, knowing there are “tangible, negative consequences.” In short, our threshold for ambiguity varies based on the potential harmfulness of outcomes.


We see many organization who “talk the talk” of innovation, but the perceived harm of a new initiative’s failure paralyzes them with inactivity. Rather than deride employees and organizations for lack of risk tolerance, why not encourage a culture that reduces the metaphorical "shock” of choosing the black ball?



Furnham, A., & Marks, J. (2013). Tolerance of Ambiguity: A Review of the Recent Literature. Psychology,04(09), 717-728. doi:10.4236/psych.2013.49102

Furnham, A., & Ribchester, T. (1995). Tolerance of ambiguity: A review of the concept, its measurement and applications. Current Psychology,14(3), 179-199. doi:10.1007/bf02686907

Mclain, D. L., Kefallonitis, E., & Armani, K. (2015). Ambiguity tolerance in organizations: Definitional clarification and perspectives on future research. Frontiers in Psychology,6. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00344

Jeff Eyet