The 5 Gifts of Uncertainty

The 5 Gifts of Uncertainty

“How are you doing?  How are you handling all this?”

It seems like 90% of conversations these days start with those two sentences.  We ask out of genuine concern and also out of a need to commiserate, to share our experiences, and to find someone that understands.

The connection these questions create is just one of the Gifts of Uncertainty that have been given to us by the pandemic.

Yes, I know that the idea of uncertainty, especially in big things like our lives and businesses, being a gift is bizarre.  When one of my friends first suggested the idea, I rolled my eyes pretty hard and then checked to make sure I was talk to my smart sarcastic fellow business owner and not the Dali Lama.

But as I thought about it more, started looking for “gifts” in the news and listening for them in conversations with friends and clients, I realized how wise my friend truly was.

Faced with levels of uncertainty we’ve never before experienced, people and businesses are doing things they’ve never imagined having to do and, as a result, are discovering skills and abilities they never knew they had.  These are the Gifts of Uncertainty

  1. Necessity of offering a vision – When we’re facing or doing something new, we don’t have all the answers. But we don’t need all the answers to take action.  The people emerging as leaders, in both the political and business realms, are the ones acknowledging this reality by sharing what they do know, offering a vision for the future, laying out a process to achieve it, and admitting the unknowns and the variables that will affect both the plan and the outcome.
  2. Freedom to experiment – As governments ordered businesses like restaurants to close and social distancing made it nearly impossible for other businesses to continue operating, business owners were suddenly faced with a tough choice – stop operations completely or find new ways to continue to serve. Restaurants began to offer carry out and delivery.  Bookstores, like Powell’s in Portland OR and Northshire Bookstore in Manchester VT, also got into curbside pick-up and delivery game.  Even dentists and orthodontists began to offer virtual visits through services like Wally Health and Orthodontic Screening Kit, respectively.
  3. Ability to change – Businesses are discovering that they can move quickly, change rapidly, and use existing capabilities to produce entirely new products. Nike and HP are producing face shields. Zara and Prada are producing face masks. Fanatics, makers of MLB uniforms, and Ford are producing gowns.  GM and Dyson are gearing up to produce ventilators. And seemingly every alcohol company is making hand sanitizer.  Months ago, all of these companies were in very different businesses and likely never imagined that they could or would pivot to producing products for the healthcare sector.  But they did pivot.
  4. Power of Relationships – Social distancing and self-isolation are bringing into sharp relief the importance of human connection and the power of relationships. The shift to virtual meetups like happy hours, coffees, and lunches is causing us to be thoughtful about who we spend time with rather than defaulting to whoever is nearby.  We are shifting to seeking connection with others rather than simply racking up as many LinkedIn Connections, Facebook friends, or Instagram followers as possible.  Even companies are realizing the powerful difference between relationships and subscribers as people unsubscribed en mass to the “How we’re dealing with COVID-19 emails” they received from every company with which they had ever provided their information.
  5. Business benefit of doing the right thing – In a perfect world, businesses that consistently operate ethically, fairly, and with the best interests of ALL their stakeholders (not just shareholders) in mind, would be rewarded. We are certainly not in a perfect world, but some businesses are doing the “right thing” and rea being rewarded.  Companies like Target are offering high-risk employees like seniors pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems 30-days of paid leave.  CVS and Comcast are paying store employees extra in the form of one-time bonuses or percent increases on hourly wages.  Sweetgreen and AllBirds are donating food and shoes, respectively, to healthcare workers.  On the other hand, businesses that try to leverage the pandemic to boost their bottom lines are being taken to task.  Rothy’s, the popular shoe brand, announced on April 13 that they would shift one-third of their production capacity to making “disposable, non-medical masks to workers on the front line” and would donate five face masks for every item purchased.  Less than 12 hours later, they issued an apology for their “mis-step,” withdrew their purchase-to-donate program, and announced a bulk donation of 100,000 non-medical masks.

Before the pandemic, many of these things seemed impossibly hard, even theoretical.  In the midst of uncertainty, though, these each of these things became practical, even necessary.  As a result, in a few short weeks, we’ve proven to ourselves that we can do what we spent years saying we could not.

These are gifts to be cherished, remembered and used when the uncertainty, inevitably, fades.

Originally published on Mat 19, 2020 on

VTS with the Best: An Interview with Suzi Hamill

VTS with the Best: An Interview with Suzi Hamill

Last week, I wrote about Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), a process of using art to teach visual literacy, thinking, and communication skills.

Typically, used in primary school classrooms, VTS has made its way into the corporate setting, helping individuals and teams to build and strengthen their problem solving and critical thinking skills, ability to communicate and collaborate, and effectiveness in delivering and receiving feedback.

While I did my best to capture the Why, What, and How of VTS in that post, there’s no substitute for learning from an expert.  That’s why I asked Suzi Hamill , former Head of Design Thinking at Fidelity and the woman who introduced me to VTS, to share her experience using the tool.


Hi Suzi.  Thanks for sharing your VTS wisdom and experience today.  I understand you’ve been doing a fair bit of VTS-ing lately.

Suzi: Yes!  Just a few months ago I was at Oxford University coaching 30 Chief Marketing Officers from large global corporations on how to apply Visual Thinking Strategies to their work and their teams.  And just last week, I led a session with a group of women on the West Coast of the US.

That’s one of the things I find so fascinating about VTS.  It was created to help people learn about art and was designed to be used in schools, but it can have such a powerful impact in a wide variety of businesses.

Suzi: Absolutely.  In a business context, there are massive systems and massive problems, and everyone has their own interpretation of what’s going on.  (imagine doctors deliberating over a diagnosis, investment analysts debating a company’s intrinsic value, retailers predicting the next fashion trend…) This creates conflict.  How do you pull together a range of people and ideas to forge the best path forward? VTS is a great, simple but rigorous method to help business groups look at big problems. VTS is a way to have open exploratory conversations with a diverse set of people

This is especially true in organizations that are very execution oriented. Often organizations haven’t developed the time, space or habit to work through ambiguity. VTS opens space for there to be ambiguity and dialogue.  It gives people permission to explore ideas, be wrong, and hear different points of view.

All of those behaviors are essential to making good business decisions.  I wonder, have you found that some people need “permission” more than others?

Suzi: I think everyone can benefit from the VTS experience and there are some circumstances where it can be transformational.

We are often taught not to question authority. But there is a delicate balance between challenging authority and understanding perspectives At Fidelity, our first experiment focused on using it as a way to prompt open conversation when there was a power imbalance in a room.  We rolled VTS out to our Design Team of about 100 people as a way to help junior designers to talk to the CEO or senior executives about their work and not get defensive.  We trained them to ask the VTS questions, especially “What do you see that makes you say that?”  We found that it was a great way for designers to learn how to get feedback on their designs.

Once we started having success with VTS, it was integrated into Fidelity’s 6-month long training program for the top 100 potential leaders.

That’s where we found the next circumstance – using VTS with leadership teams.  We found that VTS acts as a practical way to introduce the idea that you’re not just a do-er now, you’re a thinker and, as a result, you’re going to be faced with ambiguity.  Instead of shying away from it, you need to see that ambiguity is not only ok, but it is also fertile ground for us to grow our business.

That’s great but, as we both know, just because you learn something in training doesn’t mean you actually do it in real life.  Have you seen VTS make that jump?  Get people to move from knowing to doing?

 Suzi: I have.

At Fidelity, we would VTS customer research.  We would use the principle of VTS more than follow the strict methodology. We’d post our research on walls – sticky notes, photos of customers, flowcharts, everything, and we would bring in stakeholders and use the VTS process to tease out insights.  We give people time to LOOK and internalize what they were seeing before we told them what to think. By asking questions, we would discover what they were interpreting, identify unconscious biases, and learn what they already know or want to know about the customer.

At the event in Oxford, we VTS-ed the Business Model Canvas because most of the CMOs weren’t familiar with it.   Just by looking at it, they teased out its purpose, what was important and what wasn’t, what was confusing, and what wouldn’t work.  They walked away with a deeper internalization of its meaning

How is VTS able to do that?  To help people quickly internalize new insights or behaviors?

Suzi: The best way I can explain it is that VTS is like yoga.  When you teach someone yoga, with consistent practice they develop better posture and they walk and move fluidly and with strength.  So, when they’re going through their day, they become more aware of their posture and adjust but they don’t go into a whole vinyasa flow.

VTS is similar because when you use it with people, you’re teaching the mechanics of dialogue, of using evidence to progress, of managing ambiguity and conflict.

It takes time to tease out the power of the process but in the end, I’ve seen it help people realize that you don’t have to agree or disagree right away.  Instead, it gives them space to express an opinion and teaches them to ask questions and to ask for evidence in a way that is psychologically safe.

OK, but is it as simple as asking the 3 VTS questions?

Suzi: I wish.  You need somebody who is a skilled facilitator, who can keep the group moving forward and exploring ideas.

Leaders know they should stimulate conversation… solicit other people’s opinions, but they don’t know how. In meetings leaders will voice their own opinions, rely on the loudest voices, and steer the conversation. People will pick up on these signals. They will stop exploring and focus on giving the right answer.

Often, when people are running meetings they try to participate.  But that’s like trying to breathe underwater.  You can’t facilitate and participate.

What have you learned & applied?

Suzi: If you want to get people to engage in a great dialog, try giving them something to look at first. It can be a metaphor or real reflection. But give them something specific to point to anchor their thoughts.

Give people time to look and think before they speak or act. Silence is Golden. Silence is not the enemy. Give people time to silently observe something. Even 1 min can make a huge difference in how people respond.

You don’t need to compliment people on their thoughts to keep them engaged. Ask them for more… What do you see that makes you say that? What more can we find? People are not often asked for their opinions. That act alone is incredibly engaging.

As a leader it is just as important to get the obvious out on the table so that you can get to true insight.

Mom: Innovation’s OG

Mom: Innovation’s OG

My Mom was a nursery-school teacher. It was more than her profession, it was her gift. Long after my sister and I were grown and out of the house, my mom chose to spend her days with 4-year olds, teaching them everything from the ABCs to how to use the WC.

Like all moms, she was an innovator. She was constantly creating something different that had impact. Admittedly, sometimes “different” was just weird and “impact” wasn’t always ideal, but it’s only just recently that I’ve realized how much my mom (probably accidentally) role-modeled the traits of a world-class innovator.

The genius of stealth prototyping

In an effort to save a bit of money, I spent the summer before business school living with my parents. One day, while folding the laundry (it took less than 20 minutes!), I found one of my Dad’s white athletic tube socks. But it wasn’t like the other white athletic tube socks. This one had three circles drawn on the bottom of it in what appeared to be black Sharpie.

“Mom, what’s up with this sock?”

“Oh, I needed a ghost puppet for school so I just used one of your dad’s socks.”

When my dad got home from work, I showed him the sock and asked if he had noticed the black circles on the foot. He had not.

White tube sock with a face drawn on the bottom

Ghost Puppet Prototype

Let me be very clear about what happened here:

  1. In OCTOBER, my mom needed a ghost puppet for a Halloween lesson at nursery school
  2. In OCTOBER, she took ONE of my dad’s socks and drew a “face” on it. Then, after using it as a puppet, threw it in the wash, refolded it with its mate, and put it back in my dad’s sock drawer
  3. In JULY, my dad put on a pair of white tube socks (probably to go golfing) without realizing that one of them had a face on it

Proof that if you use what you’ve got to do what you need to do, management will be none the wiser.

The infectious nature of optimism

My Mom was raised by a Marine and while she went easier on us on a day-to-day basis, her standards were Marine-high when it came to weekend chores and Spring Cleaning. For example, when my sister’s boyfriend (now husband) came to visit for the first time, my Mom had me spend several hours laying on my stomach with a pair of tiny sewing scissors, trimming the entry-way rug to ensure all of its fibers were exactly the same length.

Every Saturday when we were growing up, immediately after rattling off a long list of chores to a chorus of groans and eye rolls, Mom would reassure us that “If we all work together, it will only take 20 minutes.”

We always knew it would take infinitely longer than 20 minutes. There is no way four people can clean an entire house up to Marine code standards in 20 minutes. It’s simply not possible. But despite this fact, we always hoped that this time, this time, it would only take 20 minutes.

It never took only 20 minutes. Never. But we always hoped it would.

The life-changing power of empathy

Children were drawn to my Mom. She was like the Pied Piper. Whenever we were in public, children would gravitate to her, walk beside her, wave to her. She connected with them in a way that defied explanation. So, when she passed away suddenly, it was not surprising that there were nearly as many children at her wake as there were adults.

But it was one little girl who passed on to me my mom’s final lesson.

As my dad, sister, and I shook hands, hugged, and thanked people for coming, I noticed a young girl, maybe 6 or 8 years old, standing along a wall sobbing uncontrollably. In a week filled with inconsolable people, she was the most inconsolable I’d seen. So I stepped out of line to talk to her.

I knelt in front of her and asked what was wrong (yes, it’s a stupid question but cut me some slack, I definitely did not inherit my mom’s “good with kids” gene).

“Your mom changed my life. When I was in her class, I didn’t have any friends and my parents were going to pull me out of school. But your mom heard me singing one day and she came over to sing with me. We sang together every day after that. She gave me to confidence to talk to the other kids. And now I’m still in school and I have friends and I even sing in the choir.”

My mom couldn’t sing. She was a terrible singer and she knew it (side note: I did inherit my mom’s “can’t carry a tune in a bucket” gene). But she saw a little girl in need of a friend so instead of worrying about how silly she would sound, she joined that little girl in singing a song. And, in doing so, changed a little girl’s life.

Family photo at Fenway Park

Our last family photo — Fenway Park, 2005, Indians vs. Red Sox

To all the Moms in my life and all the Moms in yours, Happy Mother’s Day. Thank you for all that you have done for us and taught us. You are many many things, brilliant world-class innovation OGs is just one.

What Explaining the Poop Emoji to a 5-year old Taught Me About Innovation

What Explaining the Poop Emoji to a 5-year old Taught Me About Innovation

A few weeks ago, my 5-year old niece and I spent the afternoon together at a paint-your-own-pottery place. My niece was adamant that she wanted to paint something for her dad and immediately zoned in on a piece — a 3D poop emoji.

Remembering my sister’s parenting advice, I started with a question, “Why do you want to paint that for Daddy?”

Her response was simple enough, “Because it’s chocolate.”

I could have easily left it at that.

But I didn’t.

“Ok….why don’t you paint the pegasus for Daddy instead?”

She looked up at me with her big brown eyes, “Why?”

“Ummm, well, I just think it’s better.”

She scrunched her nose as she usually does when she doesn’t understand something, looked back at the poop emoji, and then silently picked up the Pegasus and took it over to our table.

With a sigh of relief — I knew my sister would be none to happy with me explaining the poop emoji — I thought the issue was resolved. I was wrong.

An hour later, as we stood hand-in-hand on the sidewalk waiting for her dad to come pick us up, my niece asked, “Aunt Robyn, why didn’t you want me to paint the chocolate for Daddy?”

Crap (pun somewhat intended). I have to do this. I have to be honest and explain this, and I am going to be in SO much trouble when we get home.

“Well, darling, that’s not chocolate. It’s poop.”

She scrunched up her nose, pursed her lips, gave a quick nod, and continued staring out into the parking lot.

Later that night, I confessed the moment to her parents. They burst out laughing.

“That would have been hilarious!” my brother-in-law proclaimed.

“Why didn’t you just let her paint it? It’s not poop to her” my sister sighed.

That thought literally never occurred to me. It never crossed my mind that letting her paint what she thought was chocolate would result in a heart-felt (and amusing) gift to her dad of a rainbow (her favorite color at the moment and thus what everything gets painted) poop emoji to display in his office.

Instead, I thought I was saving her from embarrassment by correcting how she saw something so that her understanding was in-line with the status quo.

I’ve felt horrible about this since it happened but the experience, the ease with which it happened and the smug self-righteousness I felt about “saving” her, taught me a very important lesson about why creativity and innovation are so often killed in organizations.

For the first time, I could understand and empathize with every Dr. No I’ve ever encountered. You know who I’m writing about, the person in your organization who, whenever a new idea pops up, says, “No, we can’t do that because…

  • …that’s not how it’s done in our company/industry”
  • …we tried that back in 19XX and it didn’t work.”
  • …the bosses will never approve it.”
  • …now is not the right time.”
  • …it’s took risky/expensive.”
  • …you’ll get fired if it doesn’t work and I don’t want that to happen to you.”

My whole career, I’ve hated Dr. No and used him/her as motivation to innovate. I would focus all my energy on finding a way to prove them wrong by doing something new AND making sure that new thing was wildly successful.

What I thought I was saving everyone from

But, in that pottery shop, I was Dr. No and I didn’t realize it. In fact, I felt proud of myself.

I felt proud because I was acting out of love. I wanted to protect someone who is innocent and precious. I wanted to spare her the embarrassment and shame that I thought would surely result from giving her dad a rainbow-colored piece of poop pottery.

And maybe that is where other Dr. No’s are coming from. Maybe the are saying “No” as a way to protect you and/or the company. Maybe they tried to do what you’re suggesting and they are still smarting from the pain of it not working out. Maybe they are trying to spare you the embarrassment and shame of pursuing the proverbial corporate rainbow-colored poop pottery.

And no matter how often you try to explain that the new idea is chocolate and not poop, they won’t hear you. Because they are anchored in a status quo reality that demands things be seen in one, and only one, way.

And in that moment you, the innovator, has a choice. You can scrunch your nose and move on to something safer or you can defiantly insist on painting that poop, confident that it will become a rainbow work of art that is treasured by the people that matter the most.

And, hopefully, you can have a bit of compassion for Dr. No who is simply trying to help you because she loves you.


A few weeks after the poop pottery incident, my sister told me that my niece asked to send a text message to her dad. My niece’s text messages are entirely comprised of emojis and after a few seconds of tapping out flowers and suns and rainbows, my niece’s finger stopped, hovering briefly over the screen.

“What’s wrong, honey?” my sister asked

“Do you know what this is?” my niece responded, pointing to the poop emoji

“What do you think it is?”

“Aunt Robyn said it’s poop…”

“Well, a lot of people think that’s what it is. but your Daddy told me that he read an article that it was originally designed to be chocolate ice cream on top of an ice cream cone. So you can think of it that way too.” (my sister swears this is a true story).

“Ok. Then it’s chocolate ice cream!” my niece exclaimed before adding at least a dozen chocolate ice creams to her text

Well done, little one. Well done.