I always thought it interesting that former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld popularized the phrase the Unknown Unknowns. Unfortunately, he used it in the sense of things we couldn’t know that throw off our plans, and he used it as an excuse for his failures in Iraq, especially his failure to plan properly for post war occupation. And therefore as an excuse not to learn from his mistakes.
The Getting Real stage of the Creative Conflict Model behind this blog, envisages we move past our automatic self righteous pattern recognition (of our Elephant in Jon Haidt’s great concept) and establish for the conflict: the Known Knowns (and the evidence for them), our Known Unknowns (our research agenda for the conflict: what we know we need to find out), our Unknown Knowns (the things we know that would be useful but we have forgotten we know them or that they are relevant) and then Rumsfeld’s Unknown Unknowns. The whole point of thinking about the latter is to change them into at very least things we Know we don’t Know, the Known Unknowns….Which Rumsfeld was clearly incapable of doing.
My friend Ramaa just asked me how to handle Unknown Unknowns and here’s how I think we can do it:
- Map what you do know, and see where the blank spots on the ‘map’ are. These are your Unknown Unknowns or blind spots
- Consciously and in writing going through the Known Knowns, the Known Unknowns, the Unknown Knowns is a great way to create this map and the blind spots
- Go looking for contrary data: what is the opposite of what you think and is there any data to support this contrarian take?
- Look at opponent’s data and how they see things. You may realize you have little idea of how they see things: it is one large Unknown you didn’t even know you didn’t know. Much of conflict is exploring the Unknown Unknown of the other side’s mindset that we usually pretend isn’t there or is just plain wrong to our self righteous Elephant and so not worth listing
- Seek cognitive diversity: people with very different mindsets who may not be part of the conflict, but who could ask some good questions that might throw up more Unknown Unknowns
- Look at the conflict’s history to see if you thought different things previously?
- Ask what would surprise you? Make your jaw drop?
- What mistakes have you made in the past and are any due to blind spots that are relevant here?
- Watch how the Elephant feels: if you are getting onto threatening or painful Unknown Unknowns, the Elephant will try to avoid them: see if you can press on into them
- Fundamentally think how out of control, how threatening the Unknown Unknowns are? Donald Rumsfeld clearly had no way to actually think about them. He just used them as an excuse for failure in Iraq…’Duh, some things we just don’t know’. ‘No Donald, the moment we have the concept of Unknowns Unknowns we can go look for them’….
Here’s Donald Rumsfeld who failed to learn from his insight when he used it as an excuse for failure rather than as a spur for thought: