Most families have one — that relative who makes the cake, or bakes the pie or cookies that everybody wants on holidays. In my family, it’s my mother Shelby. No matter how hard we try to recreate her recipe for pecan bars, they never end up tasting as good as hers. They make people swoon.
I’ve always wondered about this phenomenon, since baking is essentially just following instructions. You measure out the amounts, set the right temperature, and take things out of the oven when the timer goes off. It’s like a lab experiment. There are even beakers and thermometers made specially to help bakers be more precise.
So what’s the difference between an adequate cake and a great one? Not precision, but vagueness.
Ask the master baker why they’re doing what they’re doing, and you’ll get a vague answer: “Oh, I just add a pinch of this or that.” Ask any artist how they work and at some point you bump up against mystery.
I used to think this was a way of protecting trade secrets. But now I suspect it’s because any truly effective process is always partly undefined.
Appliance designers have caught on to this. You can now buy rice cookers that use fuzzy logic, programming that lets computers think in shades of gray between 1 and 0. Fuzzy logic adjusts for things like external temperature and humidity, just as a human being might.
Quantum computers, which have the potential to be orders of magnitude more powerful than any computer around today, are built around the concept of vagueness. They can not only think in values between 1 and 0, but can think in 1s and 0s at the same time. Quantum computers can, in essence, hold two contradictory ideas in their head at the same time. The result is better, more nuanced decisions.
In purely human systems, vagueness is also a recipe for better decision making. The U.S. Constitution had vagueness built into it from the very start. The founders wanted a certain amount of permanently unresolved tension between the three branches of the federal government: the President, the Congress, and the Supreme Court. They knew that the long-term survival of the U.S. depended on a continuous redistribution of power. Assuming that the technology, politics, and economics of the future would be beyond their imagining, they left room for solutions that were also beyond their imagining.
That is why citizens, constitutional scholars, and the members of the three branches of government spend so much time figuring out what the Constitution means. Every American generation has had its unique crisis of government to work out. It’s hard work, but we’re a more resilient country because of it. Forever unfinished, but resilient.
Working within a vague system is tough. But we’d better get used to it. With the world racing forward with more complexity and speed, more vagueness is one of the few things we can be certain of.
When we have to make a decision but don’t know who is supposed to make it, or when there is more than one right answer, the burden on us is greater. We have to think more, learn more, and collaborate more. We have to be more creative. But the decisions we end up with are better.
At the start of my career, I used to burn up a lot of mental energy looking for the permanent, right way to do things. But I’ve learned to let my ideas evolve. In fact, I’ve come to seek out those vague moments as an opportunity to put my imagination to work. Here are four (-ish) ways vagueness has helped me learn to work better.
1) Vagueness helps me understand and navigate the workplace. The people officially “in charge” aren’t always the ones in charge. Depending on the situation and the personal dynamics, “power” moves around wherever it’s needed. So when I’ve got a problem to solve I look in different places to see who’s de facto leading the charge. You know who that is because people tend to defer to her, or suggest you can’t move forward without talking to them. And usually they are the ones with the most passion for solving the problem at hand.
2) Vagueness helps me stay relevant. Don’t know what you want to be when you grow up? Good. Neither do I. Nor do I know specifically some of the projects I’ll be driving a few months from now. I’ve learned that thinking I know too much about something can keep me blind to new possibilities. In fact, people frequently say to me “I don’t really know what you do?!” They don’t realize that part of my role is to immerse myself in market uncertainty to find the patterns forming what’s next. And as long as I’m willing to tolerate some vagueness in my job description, I’ve got a fighting chance of doing a good job. One of the best ways to make vagueness useful to keep a discovery notebook. Every time I come across a problem I can’t define, or an idea that seems promising but incomplete, I jot it down. Then, when the missing piece shows up, I’ve got everything I need to begin.
3) Vagueness helps me innovate. Some of the best calls I get from my boss are the ones that start out with “here’s a seed of an idea, see if you can make it grow.” When I hear those words, I know the work ahead is going to be tough, but I also know it’s bound to be interesting. With your project team, try telling them what the outcome should look like, but give them room to figure out how to get there, not a hard and fast checklist of how to do it. You’ll be amazed at the creativity that emerges. You can do the same thing with your solo projects, too. Give yourself a vision, but don’t over define how you’re going to get there.
4-ish) Vagueness can save time/slow you down. Which is it? Both? As I write this, I don’t know. Both ideas seem right to me, so I’ll toss it out to you, the reader, to help me solve this one. This is my version of “here’s the seed of an idea.” Let me know in the comments what you think this final point should be, and we’ll finish this piece of writing together.
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