When Donald Rumsfeld talked about known knowns and unknown unknowns in the run up to the invasion of 2002 he was widely pilloried in the media. Despite this, the quote highlights some of the core problems with teams and individuals analysing problems.
Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.Donald Rumsfeld
What Rumsfeld summarised in his quote was similiar to the thinking behind the Johari window which is often used for self-analysis. The same thinking can be used to analyse business challenges and works particularly well when done as a team activity.
Understanding a complex situation in-depth is one of the first steps to successfully influencing it.
These are the facts that an individual or team ‘know’ about their challenge. When I work with clients it often becomes clear that the known knowns aren’t actually as clear cut as the team first seems to think.
- People often fail to differentiate between assumptions and facts. There is nothing wrong with assumptions but people need to be clear that they are just that. We have worked with one client where a mistaken assumption about the cause of issue with the delivery of a solution had cost millions of pounds. Clarifying the assumption resolved the issue. Within a team, getting people to justify their own assumptions can clarify thinking and help the team arrive at a joined up position.
- Within a team different people will ‘know’ different things. Getting the team to add ‘knowns’ to a Johari window chart can help share knowledge and remove the problems of “well everyone knows that don’t they.”
- Some ‘known knowns’ can become accepted wisdom even if they cease to be true leading to a failure to respond to changes in the situation.
Being clear about the gaps in your individual or team knowledge can help you do something about it.
- Listing down specific questions, working out who and how they might be answered and tracking your progress can significantly increase the situational awareness of your team.
- You may not be able to answer some of your known unknowns and that’s okay. Accepting this is a constraint is still useful and may affect how you try to resolve the situation.
Rumsfeld only talked about one type of unknown unknowns while the Johari model looks at two types: things that you might have no visibility about but that might be clearly known to others; and things that completely unknown to all parties.
- When I’m working with clients I regularly ask “What else do you think it might be useful for me to know to help you the best?” These type of ‘What else’ questions are an easy way to help reduce your own blindspots.
- We cover other elicitiation and listening techniques on our Influence Skills workshops. Good questions accompanied by good listening is a great way of surfacing information that might highlight unknown unknowns.
- Horizon scanning can be a good way of beginning to think about the unknown unknowns that aren’t visible to anyone. It is an in-depth topic that needs looking at in isolation but a good starter guide to it can be found here.
People we work with often say that they don’t have the time to step back and look at situations using these sorts of techniques. We frequently find that by spending a short time doing this with them highlights significant time savings that could have been achieved if they’d taken the time to do this earlier.
Working out what you know, what you don’t and what you can do about it is one of the first steps of influencing a complex situation.