Senior engineers are expected to navigate uncertain situations and always be ready to come up with new solutions to the team’s problems. As seniority grows, so does the level of uncertainty and ambiguity. When I observe some of the people that I look up to, they never lack ideas on how to move forward and how to approach problems. This behavior is something I am aspiring to get better at.

I always had issues with the creative requirements of my work, even when it comes to tasks that seem less ambiguous in nature, such as writing. For example, in my masters, we often had to write essays, and I had so much trouble getting started and writing out the first few sentences. I would easily get lost in my thoughts and would not know what direction to take. I would often get stuck when trying to deal with uncertain situations.

I blame my lack of creativity on the fact that I was overly focused on math during my school years at the cost of anything creative like writing/music/acting where you constantly have to create something out of nothing. If you don’t practice something, you won’t get better at it, as simple as that.

My approach to dealing with ambiguity

I had to dig into this issue consciously and find how other people approach it. Luckily there are many resources out there, and by trial and error, I was able to get better at dealing with uncertain situations full of ambiguity and unknowns. I am far from excelling at it, but at least right now, I have a system in place that helps me.

The approach that I found works for me is very simple: it all starts with a blank piece of paper and writing out possible next steps. When you write almost anything, two things happen. First, you force yourself to think about many different options, paths, and outcomes, and even though most of them might be not applicable, you narrow down the uncertainty and the world becomes more predictable. Second, by writing things out, you don’t have to keep it all in your head, and you free up your brain to do the thinking instead of memorizing.

Once you go through this simple exercise, you can go back to the list and categorize, reword and make it more organized. This way, you consciously narrow down the uncertainty and have some ideas on where to go next. If you think you weren’t as thorough, you can then repeat the process. Reading the list and thinking about it would help you see if you need to do one or more passes.

At some point, after a couple of iterations (or as many as you think is needed), you should have a list of broad next steps that you feel comfortable with. What an awesome achievement - you started with a blank page and now have a list of the next steps.

The process doesn’t stop there: you might think that you have a too high-level description of the next steps and need some concrete, actionable items. You can repeat the above process, but this time you can take one of the next steps as a starting point. That way the starting point is more concrete, and so will be the end result. Rinse and repeat until you are comfortable with the level of details.