We all get stuck.
We set new goals and plans—but months later, we haven’t really moved the needle.
Intuitively, we know we’re capable of doing more, but in real life it can feel like we’re frozen in time—repeating the same conversations and getting the same results. We’re stuck.
The Ellsberg Paradox
A common cause of that stagnation can be demonstrated by what’s come to be known as the Ellsberg Paradox.
Named for the economic theorist, Daniel Ellsberg, this phenomenon can be described by a simple demonstration:
Imagine that I hold out two bags and explain that each bag is filled with 100 marbles—some of them are red and some of them are black.
In Bag #1, I tell you, there are exactly 50 red marbles and 50 black marbles.
Bag #2 also has 100 marbles and they are also all either red or black—but I’m not going to tell you what the ratio is. There might be an identical mix of 50 red and 50 black like the first bag, there might be 99 red and 1 black, there might be 1 red and 99 black, or anywhere other combination--you just don't know.
Now here’s the game: You get to pick one marble from one of the bags. If it’s red, I’ll give you $100. If it’s black, you give me $100.
Which bag would you like to choose from?
If you’re like the vast majority of people, you picked Bag #1 with the 50-50 split.
Bag #1 has no statistical advantage. In fact, without going into the math, it actually doesn’t matter which bag you choose. Bag #2 could just as likely have more red balls as it is likely that it has hardly any red balls—so it all rounds out to the same 50/50 chance no matter which bag you choose.
So if both bags are statistically the same, why do most of us pick Bag #1?
The answer is simple: We tend to prefer what we know over what we don’t know.
Call it an aversion to ambiguity, a preference for the “devil we know”, or just a general lack of creativity—the end result is the same: our bias towards avoiding the things that aren’t clear to us is likely to get us stuck doing what we've done in the past--same choices, same results.
The "Bag #2" in Our Plans
When I sit down with clients and look through their to-do lists, dashboards, or strategic plans—there’s almost always at least one initiative that hasn't been touched, just sitting there for months with zero progress made.
They might claim that the problem is a lack of time or resources (it’s always easy to blame time and resources) but the real culprit is often more insidious: a lack of clarity. It's a virtual "Bag #2"--not totally clear, and so, generally avoided.
Whether the initiative is worded too vaguely, was abandoned by a champion who understood it clearly but has since left the team, or is just plain new and unfamiliar--the end result is the same.
We keep going back to the bags we already know. Sure, we can still pull some winning marbles out of those bags, but we're unlikely to discover any new opportunities To really improve our results, we need to find ways to get more clear on the other possibilities in front of us.
How to get unstuck...
If you suspect that you and your team are missing out on some opportunity because of the Ellsberg phenomenon, here are some tips for getting clear, getting unstuck, and getting back on track:
Make it clearer by asking “Why?”
It’s remarkable how often teams respond to me with silence when I ask why a goal is on their list in the first place.
Sometimes, that lack of response is an indicator that the goal really shouldn’t be a priority, but more often it’s an indicator that there was some deeper meaning behind the goal that has become disconnected somewhere along the way.
Reconnecting the goal with that original purpose or--better yet--rearticulating a newer clearer goal that more accurately captures the original purpose will often trigger much more productive work.
Make it clearer by clarifying the next step.
Large projects can be hard to get our arms around. Oftentimes, we avoid things that are just too big. For example, “planning an annual fundraising event” is hard! “Scheduling the next event committee meeting” is easy. If you don’t clearly know what the very next thing to do is and who owns it—it’s not going to get done. Period.
Identify what’s next. Do that thing. Repeat.
Make it clearer by defining the finish line.
Imagine you’re a runner and you get an invitation to register for a race—but no one can tell you how long the race is. It could be a 5k, a 10-miler, or a marathon—who knows? Would you sign up for that race? Never!
Too often, we sign up for other races in our work without understanding where the finish line is.
Organizations will set fuzzy internal goals like “Improve Staff Engagement” without a specific way to measure those efforts. It’s almost impossible to make progress. Sending out a staff survey that gives you a baseline and then setting an improvement goal (e.g., increase staff engagement by 10%) is much more actionable.
When we don’t know what success looks like, we don’t bother. Let your team know where the finish line is and they'll start running.
Make it clearer by putting a time limit on it.
This is a twist on the last recommendation. Sometimes, defining a finish line isn’t realistic. I can measure when a race is over or when I’ve made 10 sales calls, or sent all the donor thank-you cards--but how do I know when writing this blog post or the design for the fundraising event website is done? Authors will tell you that a book is never really done. Eventually, you just run out of time. When tasks are more qualitative, it's harder to set a clear metric for being finished.
When setting a finish line isn’t realistic, set a time limit instead.
We’re all familiar with setting deadlines (“deliver the Annual Report six months from today”), but the same principal can be used on the short-term scale.
I use timers all the time. When I’m not feeling particularly inspired to write I will often just set a timer--sometimes for a little as 15 minutes. Immediately my focus shifts from the impossible task of writing something brilliant to focussing on the very do-able task of writing about anything for 15 minutes. More often than not, I discover something worth writing about after I’ve started typing.
The same tactic can be used by teams in meetings. Set a timer and discuss the most pressing issues related to that project in the relatively short amount of time allotted. Be clear that you will hold firm and end the conversation when the buzzer sounds. The artificial urgency is often all that’s needed to drum up more productive conversation and get back on track.
Make it clearer by killing it.
Sometimes, if we’re honest with ourselves, we realize that we’re not making progress on a project because somewhere along the line we realized it wasn’t nearly as important or impactful as we had originally thought. But if no one calls it out, the project lives on like a zombie causing unnecessary stress and anxiety for ourselves and the team.
Kill it! Stop wasting time and energy reporting out on the continued lack of progress when you know deep down there’s not going to be any meaningful progress.
Explicitly killing projects that everyone knows were dead long ago creates instant relief and builds trust that the remaining projects are truly priorities and should be treated as such.
Finally, just accept that it's not clear, and do something anyway.
Very often, truly innovative work includes a fair amount of ambiguity. By its nature, your next breakthrough success may require more energy, focus, and a higher tolerance for wading through the unknown.
If doing innovative work is a real priority, make an explicit agreement with yourself and your team that you are going to dedicate a specific portion of your time and resources to digging in on projects and tasks that are less clear and less comfortable. You can use the approaches outlined above along the way to help continue your forward progress.
Clarify what’s next.
Clarify the finish line.
Clarify the time limit.
Clarify by killing it.
Clarify that it’s not supposed to be clear right now.
Getting stuck is unavoidable, but there are specific tactics we can employ to work out of the rut. Hopefully, some of these approaches can help you break through in your work so that you’re not always drawing from the same bag and getting the same results.
What other approaches do you use individually or in your teams to create more clarity or navigate through the unknown? I’d love to hear about them!