Kalle Hellzén, chief creative officer of 180 Amsterdam, discusses why data doesn’t need to inform every single decision – and what you can gain from embracing uncertainty.
Our industry has become painfully adept at certainty. Recording the data, tracking the clicks and turning them into a banner ad that follows you around the internet forever. We’re pretty good at seeing the world as it statistically is. But in the business of creativity, certainty is a deathtrap. If we want to envisage the world as it could be, we must stray from the data-driven path and consciously wander into the unknown.
Black Mountain College, founded in North Carolina in 1933, was a notorious haven of outsider thinking, producing countless artists and thinkers, designers and writers.
The school prided itself on its opposition to the conventional, celebrating the process of learning instead of results and encouraging its students and faculty to continually push the limits of assumed knowledge. In the words of one of its few actual graduates, the poet-photographer Jonathan Williams, the school taught its students to “never take know for an answer”.
So, how can we be better at not knowing?
Accept the discomfort of uncertainty
Humans don’t like uncertainty. In fact, a 2016 study from University College London found that we find uncertainty more stressful than the certain threat of physical pain.
Yet neuroscientists have shown that our frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for our attention, working memory and problem solving, is best activated when we are confronted with the unpredictable. When we start to feel comfortable, we stop learning. And when we stop learning, we stop growing.
Accidents happen – make them deliberate
From LSD and penicillin to the microwave oven and even champagne, many of the world’s greatest inventions have been created by accident. There will be times when things do not go to plan, but sometimes disasters guide us to far better outcomes. Learn to use unforeseen circumstances to your advantage. Improvisation and innovation are two sides of the same growth-building coin.
Remember that the map is a guide, not a destination
Certainty is useful when you know where you’re coming from. To build on the past we must understand what we have experienced and hold what we have learned in our mind’s eye. But just because something works now does not mean that it will work tomorrow. The company that does not create its own future will be lost to history. The past is our map to the world as it could be, not our destination.
Pursue understanding, rather than knowledge
We live in a spiral galaxy that is growing at a rate of 500 meters per second. We should approach creative thinking like the universe, never static, constantly expanding.
Understanding is an active process: it is a form of empathy, opening us to different perspectives and new possibilities. Knowledge relies on fact, whereas understanding requires an element of imagination. Knowledge roots you to one place; understanding allows you to connect, to explore and to discover.
Widen your lens
Greater in-house diversity not only enables alternative voices to be heard and nurtured but uncovers new opportunities for growth. But don’t just create space for diverse stories to be told; engage with them and allow your own to be re-written. Use your not-knowing to drive curiosity and compassion. When we come together in diverse teams, the gaps in our own knowledge are plugged by the assorted capabilities of others. One string makes a tightrope; many make a net. Confidence comes from the collective.
Question the question
Uncertainty may be painful. Clients hate it, the chief financial officers of our agencies hate it. But certainty switches off the light that we need to see where the issues are. Certainty leads us away from the questioning impulse necessary for innovation. Think of the open-minded wonder of a small child learning about the world, constantly asking, ’Why?’ If we want insights rather than mere observations, we must question whether the question we are asking is the right one to ask. Innovation comes from the courage to not just look for a better answer, but to look for the problem behind the problem.
When we broaden our frame of reference, it exposes the limits of our own knowledge. But if we accept the discomfort of uncertainty as an asset, the limitations of our understanding become limitless. Embracing what we don’t know positions us on the precipice of discovery, beyond which lies the promise of innovation.
Staying rooted in the boundaries of the known leads to inertia. To generate fresh ideas we must keep pushing forward, keep challenging the question and keep pursuing diversity at every stage. If we want to persist beyond the now, we must never take know for an answer.
Kalle Hellzén is chief creative officer at 180 Amsterdam.