How Confusion Tolerance Unlocks Innovative Thinking
Impactful, lasting innovation requires a willingness to be uncomfortable while embracing needed disparate ideas.
It’s ironic, but a picture-perfect day with my son provides an ideal example of how important it is to be confusion tolerant. As someone who works in innovation and strategy, I understand the progress that can happen through discomfort. And a college visit provided a great opportunity to share that with my son.
We were walking on the lawn of a college campus. I was enjoying it but my son appeared conflicted. We were at one of our final campus visits and my high school senior was struggling to figure out which school to attend. “I keep going back and forth on where to go,” he told me.
The reality is, that conflict was good and it helped him…forced him…to sharpen his goals and purpose. “Lean into the conflict you feel. It is okay to feel confused, as long as you navigate with purpose,” I assured him.
I realized that this decision for him, like so many decisions are for all of us, was amplified by the pressure to make the decision based on the facts and emotions on the surface. By leaning into the conflict he felt, he was able to make connections in his head and explore what really matters as he made what for him was the most important decision he made in his life.
We’re in a speed-wins economy. Deep strategic and creative thinking is (too often) considered a luxury. Many leaders speak with pride about getting to the end goal faster and as a consequence end up zeroing in on the obvious and not always best idea. It may be true that fast, clear innovation thinking is valuable but let’s be honest — are we actually settling for the easy answer because we dislike ambiguity?
Think for a moment. How comfortable are you holding competing ideas at the same time? How long will you stay with a thought process before you force a conclusion?
I’ve given a term to the measure of how willing we are to embrace disparate ideas in the creativity and innovation processes. Confusion tolerance. It’s a relatively familiar concept. We see it in strategists, inventors, readers, and innovators. And it is vital to the necessary, non-linear system thinking that is fueling our knowledge economy.
Like so many other intellectual qualities, confusion tolerance is both nature and nurture. I have always had high confusion tolerance. My personal operating model is rooted in contradiction. For me, asking questions “on the extremes” is about testing boundaries and theories, exploring the unknown, and introducing new thinking to the equation.
I approach most ideas with a “what if?” approach. What if we’re failing to consider topics? What if we pushed the thinking toward a unique outcome?
All this questioning can be extremely frustrating for others at times. And yet, pushing for ideas that may even contradict my own long-held mental models has proven to be an essential part of leading strategy, innovation, and change. It is essential when I work with companies to build innovation ecosystems or with the Disruptor Studio where I explore ways to define the DNA of an innovator. In my roles leading or helping companies with their strategic thinking and innovation capability, asking questions on the extremes is essential. It’s where the great, unique ideas are born.
Confusion is Not Comfortable
Most companies (and their leaders) are not very confusion tolerant. But strategy and innovation should zero in on the unique aspects of an idea. The challenge is that exploring different angles and asking questions on the extreme edges of an idea can seem confrontational. Being provocative can come across as combative or judgmental.
Not surprisingly, the process of pushing the boundaries of mental models and institutional norms does not always (or often) make people happy. Particularly for the time-obsessed, the first answer to the challenge is likely to go something like this: “We already have an answer. It is pretty obvious!”
That’s the point. The obvious answer is obvious. By definition, then, it is not original. We can assume what is obvious to us is obvious to our competitors as well. Do you want to be obvious when you are trying to find new ways to differentiate and create a competitive difference?
Introducing confusion will yield uniqueness. But to get to that outcome, you must embrace the challenge of opening up your thinking process.
The Tolerant Team Member
It may seem like confusion tolerance most likely resides with the team strategist or ‘creative.’ For good reason. They offer outstanding examples. Consider screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who uses a courageous, non-linear, seemingly aimless process of spotting, capturing, using, and revising ideas to produce truly unique and paradigm-shifting outcomes. Known for tacking index cards with thought-starters throughout his environment, Sorkin is credited with some of the most celebrated films and TV series of our time (including one of my favorites….The West Wing.)
Sorkin uses his ‘index card’ ideas as a foundation, then takes in real-time information while filming to pull ideas and build productive connections that may have been missed in the early creative phase. It’s that dynamic approach that has made director and producer David Fincher observe, “Part of what makes Sorkin is not just the tonnage of words but the fact that you’re watching a person navigate the jungle of their self-doubt, the jungle of their thought process.”
Make no mistake, despite such an outstanding example of a confusion tolerant innovator being in the creative ‘sector,’ that kind of courage and wide aperture can be found anywhere. I have worked with many CEOs who possess a strong bias for action and linear drive. Many of them also know how to slow down to probe deeper into a topic. They have the confidence and experience to test boundaries and explore options.
When I was working in the corporate sector, I took a methodical approach to making sure we knew our stuff. Upon reflection and time in an innovation role, I have realized that the discipline is also a way to explore, have strategic discussions, and make sure we are not settling for the easy and obvious. It allows for confusion tolerance to thrive and nurtures the ability in those who were not naturally comfortable with it.
Today, we see an example of open-minded, systematic thinking leadership in people like Ben Chestnut, CEO and co-founder of Mailchimp. He describes the process of putting the ‘turd on the table’ as an open invitation for different and even competing perspectives to help turn an idea to an outcome.
Whether it’s brought to life by index cards or courageous conversations, embracing and encouraging confusion tolerance starts with whole-brain thinking. Linear thinking leads to linear ideas. Controlling a swirl of ideas and questions requires a balance between creative and analytical approaches.
For some, exercising the side of the brain that isn’t naturally strong is as uncomfortable as embracing confusion. Nonetheless, unlocking the analytical and creative sides of your brain to attack a single problem or idea is a key to success. Over the years, we’ve seen that those people who have an innovator’s DNA can tap into creative and analytical thinking, and they have a capacity for confusion tolerance.
Make Confusion Tolerance Work
Embracing confusion tolerance and building that muscle begins with acknowledging the outcome you’re trying to reach, protecting yourself from groupthink, and accepting and overcoming the natural tendency for analysis paralysis. The process may be difficult at first. Humans like clarity and direction. Originality is admired, but we rarely consider the journey through the ambiguous and unclear that led to the innovation.
If you’re like me, you’re biased for action. Accomplishing outcomes is a measure of success. Keep in mind that those successes will be more sustainable if they’ve emerged through a bigger, more thorough process of gathering, considering, listening, thinking, analyzing, and creating. Time is not an excuse.
Confusion tolerance and bias for action can and should coexist.
Here are a few of the best ways we know to build a muscle for confusion tolerance and embrace a more whole-brain approach to growth leadership:
- Get comfortable being uncomfortable.
- Understand and challenge your own thinking style. If you naturally start with creativity, layer in analytical, and vice versa.
- Test the boundaries of a topic. Allow divergent perspectives and voices to collide. Ask questions on the extreme.
- Systemically expose yourself to new ideas from unlikely sources. Expose yourself to ideas, industries and inputs that are not part of your daily life (e.g., if you are in banking, read about architecture.)
- Avoid the temptation to act on the easy and the obvious, and have the self-discipline to explore the boundaries of the idea.
Confusion tolerance is not about slowing things down. Rather, it’s about intensely uncovering the unexpected. As you do, you create unique value. Keep in mind that the act may be unsettling for your colleagues and it may create anxiety (for others and yourself) as you challenge the “easy” and push beyond the expected.
Don’t let that anxiety be what makes you stop. Let it be your signal to keep pushing forward to tackle the tough questions and explore (and solve) the unknown.