Known unknowns – how do you know what they are?

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Can you know the unknown?

A few years ago – well, actually, about twenty years ago – Donald Rumsfeld  (then US Secretary of Defense) received a lot of ridicule for talking about ‘known knowns’* but his ‘uncertainty matrix’, also known as a Johari Window, is well-accepted in management circles as it enables us to focus planning far more effectively. How?  By ensuring we consider all manner of possibilities.  This has, as its core, the science of project management – which has another well-known mantra: “Failing to plan is planning to fail”.   It’s dead easy planning for things you know about, but real skill lies in planning for the unknown;  working out where you have failed to plan.  In The Times on Monday 25 January 2021, Nirmal Purja discussed how he and his team became the first climbers to conquer the world’s second-highest mountain, K2, in winter.  Following the loss of much of their equipment all was – eventually – OK: “I always have a back-up plan for the back-up plan,” said Purja. 

Almost by definition, reducing anything to a snappy one-liner has its risks, and is in danger of trivialising something – but how else do we get a potentially complex set of principles into the mind?

Let’s go back to the matrix, which is worth setting out more formally.  There are various iterations of the matrix (search for ‘known-unknowns’ or ‘Johari window’), but for our purposes let’s just consider it at its simplest:

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The first sector, ‘known-knowns’, relates to issues of which we are fully aware:  we are cognisant of the potential problem, and know how to solve it.  And, for most intelligent people, this leads onto the second sector – ‘known-unknowns’: those issues or concepts about which we are fully aware, but with the key difference being that we don’t yet know, or understand, how to solve, manage or avoid them.   The simplest everyday example of this might be a travel plan:  getting from ‘home’ to ‘work’.  Sector 1 tells us that we have things such as car journeys, using our own car. We just get in the car and drive; we know that the journey will take one hour, from past experience, and we know how to drive.  For sector 2, there is public transport, but we have the (currently) unknown of the actual route, or time of departure or total time from leaving the house to arriving at the office.  We can, however, fairly easily remedy our ‘unknown’ by visiting a website or making a phone call.

Sector 3, ‘unknown-knowns’ refers to those things about which we are actually aware – but didn’t realise we already knew them.  This could relate to the possibility of not having enough petrol (we don’t yet know if this is the case, but we know how to remedy the situation should it arise). Or maybe the way you instinctively react to a situation in the ‘right’ way:  you didn’t ‘know’ that you could say or do something that would be exactly right in the circumstances – it just was.  This arose out of all of your prior knowledge, awareness and experiences, and ‘just happened’.  The way you rose to the occasion when there was a serious road accident – all of the subliminal medical information you took in while watching documentary programmes, for example, or awareness of procedures. You were never trained in it – you just did it, instinctively.  Maybe the way you react to a skid or bit of dangerous driving from someone else.

The fourth sector, ‘unknown-unknowns’ is (in our example) all those events which may conspire to give us what is usually a problem:  a yet-to-happen closure of the road or railway line, evacuation of the station, destination office being closed due to a fire evacuation, etc etc.   We don’t know if any of these events has or will happen, and it can be difficult to plan for their occurrence.   

In business terms, known-knowns could relate to your own skills, knowledge of the business or customers or the product;  knowns-unknowns could relate to (eg) the findings of a survey you have yet to carry out on customer requirements for a new product or the fact that you don’t (yet?) have the ability to speak in a foreign language.  Unknown-knowns could be a whole raft of ways of dealing with people, or managing a crisis: the sort of event where you have to act first and think second.  You do it – but on reflection, after the event, you didn’t realise that you could do it.

Unknown-unknowns were maybe (prior to 2020) the concept that all businesses could be closed down for a period of months – but there are always other unknown issues or events waiting out there to catch you unawares…They can, of course, be issues which give rise to fantastic opportunities – think of those companies which have done very well out of the current pandemic!  Could they ever have considered expanding their production or workforce in the way that they have done so?

Working with me will give you a chance to consider each of these sectors – and more importantly add some colour to them by making them relevant:  what is the importance of the sector to you?  What is the value?  How likely or risky are any of the sectors?  How can I help you to delve into your subconscious and start to ‘know’ the things that you didn’t know you knew, moving them from Sector 3 to Sector 1 – and how can you start to develop skills at identifying (and thus either minimising or maximising) your Sector 4 issues?

At the end of our sessions, you will – at the very least – minimise your ‘unknown-knowns’ and increase your ‘known-knowns’ as I’ll help you understand how much you do know – and how much more knowledge you can readily acquire.  You’ll discover where you need to concentrate your efforts, and increase your ‘portfolio’ of skills and abilities.

If you feel it would be worthwhile having a brief, no-cost, no-obligation chat about any of the concepts here and discuss how they could generate value for you and your business, contact Sean on or call 01522 700600.

  * The original quotation:
“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns.These are things we do not know we don’t know.”    Donald Rumsfeld, Former United States Secretary of Defence, 2002.

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