The 8 Design Abilities of Creative Problem Solvers

Why is navigating ambiguity a super-ability in creative work?
Active Experiments
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Purpose for Students
Why Ambiguity?
Date Added: 
May 2019

Relationship to Ambiguity

In this 40 minute podcast, David Kelley, founder of IDEO and the Stanford, and IDEO U Dean Suzanne Gibbs Howard sit down to discuss the core abilities of the most successful design thinking practitioners, along with personal stories and learnings from David’s friendships with several of today’s most innovative CEOs and leaders. The first 20 minutes or so of the podcast are dedicated to design abilities, with David beginning to talk about Navigating Ambiguity at around the 6:00 minute mark.

He says, "I think the most important ability that you need to build in this kind of innovation space is the ability to navigate ambiguity." He goes on to talk about how if you're in place where the problem is well-defined, and you already know how to measure the result, the probability of coming up with something new to the world is quite low. The opportunity, rather, lies in ambiguous challenges: "It's necessary to go to a place where you have this feeling that you don't know what the problem is, and you don't exactly know which direction you're going to go and that you're going to have to pivot to someplace other than where you are, and it's scary. And so getting used to that, getting into a place where you're embracing that notion that 'I don't know where this is going, but my previous experience has said that I have to be in this state in order to go to a place that's new to the world.'"

David also discusses the discomfort of wallowing in a state of not knowing. While it isn't easy, it's critical, and he believes the only way to build up our tolerance is through lived experience  — having felt it before and knowing it turned out well.




We invited David Kelley to come in and speak to our class "Design Thinking Studio" in the middle of the quarter.  It was right as students were launching into a big, messy design project, and needed some extra encouragement.    

If we weren't able to bring David in in person, I think assigning his podcast would have been a great alternative to hear his perspectives.




David is a masterful storyteller and communicator, connecting instantly with his audiences (we already knew that!).  Hearing from him directly had a huge effect on our students -- it re-energized them going into their second design project, and I think helped them "see the forest through the trees."  They realized how important this stuff really is.

Design Abilities Used

Listen to how David communicates in order to candidly share his thoughts, ideas, and experiences with his listeners.


Submitted by:

Kelly Schmutte
Kelly Schmutte
Curriculum Designer and Lecturer, Stanford + Founder, PerfectFit Pointe

Design Abilities Used

Communicate Deliberately
Learn More about Design Abilities 


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