Yin-yang thinking – A solution to dealing with unknown unknowns?

By Christiane Prange and Alicia Hennig

author - christiane prange
Christiane Prange (biography)

Sometimes, we wonder why decisions in Asia are being made at gargantuan speed. How do Asians deal with uncertainty arising from unknown unknowns? Can yin-yang thinking that is typical for several Asian cultures provide a useful answer?

Let’s look at differences between Asian and Western thinking first. Western people tend to prefer strategic planning with linear extrapolation of things past. The underlying mantra is risk management to buffer the organization and to protect it from harmful consequences for the business. But juxtaposing risk and uncertainty is critical. Under conditions of uncertainty, linearity is at stake and risk management limited.

In several Asian cultures, like China, dealing with high uncertainty and volatility is day-to-day business. The country overall scores comparatively low on the uncertainty avoidance index as illustrated by culture researcher Geert Hofstede (2001). For an outside observer, everything seems to be in constant change to the extent that initial plans and/or agreements become irrelevant.

author - alicia hennig
Alicia Hennig (biography)

Back in Zhou Dynasty (ca. 1046 – 256 BC) the Chinese already had a ‘solution’ to deal with uncertainty and unknown unknowns. The oracle book Zhou Yi 周易, the Changes of Zhou (with appendices later known as the ancient classic Yi Jing 易經, the Book of Changes) helped the Kings to identify actions leading to good fortune. It was also the first work applying the concept of yin-yang.

Yin-yang represent dual, alternating and interdependent categories or principles that are dynamically related. Yin-yang goes back to natural observations of yin 陰 shady side of the hill, darkness and yang 陽 sunny side of the hill, brightness, that together form an integrated whole. This concept, and the idea that change is the only constant, provides the basis for the Chinese cosmology, worldview and logic. Yin-yang is reflected in the Chinese way of thinking that is characterized by a non-linear worldview, where there is no pre-defined and final goal but patterns are changing, being ‘repeated’ in a circular fashion. This thinking can provide at least three important insights for a better understanding of unknown unknowns.

1. Co-existence and balance of opposing elements
Unlike Western thinking as a process of ‘either/or’ exclusion, yin-yang is ‘both/and’ thinking that suggests the idea of co-existence and balance of opposites. For example, modern approaches to organizations advocate the use of agile principles to better cope with complexity. While a major tenet of agility is speed and adaptability, the concept is incomplete and often unsuccessful if not balanced with slowness and stability.

2. Process-orientation
For Easterners, changes in a (planning) process are no contradiction as long term-opportunity is compatible with constant adaptation; there exists no ultimate a priori truth in a plan, as it needs to be aligned with situation, context, and time. In this sense, planning and implementation are constantly interacting until the goal is reached. For Westerners, this interactive refinement is difficult because they prefer strict project planning, formal scheduling and subsequent implementation.

3. Uncertainty as natural and uncontrollable
The last tenet is probably the most important when it comes to dealing with unknown unknowns. Westerners typically see ambiguity as rather negative. They like to have access to information as a basis of rational planning. When relevant information is missing, they revert to risk scenarios to cover up for the lack of control – a widely misleading exercise to capture what has not been or cannot be known.

In contrast, Eastern people embrace ambiguity as desirable and don’t need to substitute complexity by simplicity and uncertainty with certainty. By seeing uncertainty and certainty as transitory, alternating phases, they avoid the trap of believing that uncertainty can be rationally managed and eliminated. This leads to a more relaxed, realistic and creative approach to unknown unknowns.

Given the attractiveness of Eastern thinking in situations of uncertainty, can Westerners learn from Asians? Can yin-yang thinking be transferred to a different cultural context? In most cases, a direct transfer is difficult because concepts are tied to history and culture. They often touch deeply engrained values that are mostly hidden and subconscious.

Regardless of these barriers, a few ideas from yin-yang thinking could help Westerners when dealing with uncertainty and unknown unknowns:

  • Understand that uncertainty is not something negative but can be strategically exploited, as uncertainty and certainty are two sides of the same coin that are interdependent and alternating;
  • Play with both past patterns and newly emerging patterns to increase the potential scope of action;
  • Practice thinking from different, opposing directions to arrive at variable and flexible solutions under the condition of constant change.

Eastern philosophy may be worth considering when it comes to dealing with the complexities of today. Can we thereby better tackle the uncertainty that accompanies unknown unknowns? Although we cannot eliminate uncertainty, Eastern philosophy can teach us how to deal with it productively. The success of this endeavor, though, is likely to be matter of individuals adapting their thinking to the ‘circular’ logic of yin-yang.

Do you think yin-yang thinking is worth adopting? Have you seen examples in the Western world? What potential difficulties do you see in adopting this logic or way of thinking?

Granet, M. (1985). Das Chinesische Denken (trans: M. Porkert). Suhrkamp: Frankfurt, Germany

Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions and organizations across nations. Sage: Thousand Oaks, California, United States of America

Li, P. P. (1998). Towards a geocentric framework of organizational form: A holistic, dynamic and paradoxical approach. Organization Studies, 19, 5: 829–861.

Wang, R. R. (2012). Yinyang: The Way of Heaven and Earth in Chinese Thought and Culture. Cambridge University Press: New York, United States of America

Biography: Christiane Prange PhD is a Professor of Strategic and International Management at Tongji University, Shanghai, China. She is also the Director of the AgileVentureLab, a global think tank and expert advisory group focused on strategizing and transformation of global companies facing shifting dynamics, and learning from Asia (especially China).

Biography: Alicia Hennig PhD is an Associate Professor of Business Ethics at Southeast University, Nanjing, China. She is an interdisciplinary cross-cultural researcher working on Chinese philosophy and its application in business and management.

This blog post is part of a series on unknown unknowns as part of a collaboration between the Australian National University and Defence Science and Technology.

For the seven other blog posts already published in this series, see: https://i2insights.org/tag/partner-defence-science-and-technology/

Scheduled blog posts in the series:
January 14, 2020: Detecting non-linear change ‘inside-the-system’ and ‘out-of-the-blue’ by Susan van ‘t Klooster and Marjolijn Haasnoot
January 28, 2020: How can resilience benefit from planning? by Pedro Ferreira
February 11, 2020: Why do we protect ourselves from unknown unknowns? by Bem Le Hunte

Theoretical framework for open team science / オープンチームサイエンスという考え方

By Yasuhisa Kondo

A Japanese version of this post is available

author yasuhisa kondo
Yasuhisa Kondo (biography)

What is open team science? What challenges does it deal with and how?

What is open team science?

In our experience, projects are commonly disrupted by socio-psychological boundaries, particularly at the initial phase of team building. Such boundaries are often generated by asymmetric information, knowledge, wisdom (wise use of knowledge; Bellingen et al., 2004), values, socio-economic status, and power among actors.

We have developed a theoretical framework that considers open science as an open scientific knowledge production system, which can be interlinked with transdisciplinarity as a driver of boundary spanning to develop a new research paradigm. We call this open team science.

The open team science theoretical framework

Our theoretical framework spans inter-actor boundaries by:

  1. developing the goals that actors with different interests can tackle together (transcend method)
  2. considering ethical equity with special attention paid to empowering marginalized actors
  3. developing data visualization based on the FAIR Data Principles
  4. facilitating dialogue.

The framework is summarised in the two figures below.

kondo_theoretical framework_principles citizen science
The theoretical framework of open team science interlinking principles from citizen science and community-based participatory research. Source: Kondo et al (2019).



kondo_theoretical framework_key concepts
Key concepts and approaches for boundary spanning in the open team science framework. Source: Kondo et al (2019).

Finally, we describe three key concepts for boundary spanning in our framework: “transcend,” “ethical equity” and FAIR data principles.


Transcend involves discovering and sharing the goals that actors with different interests can tackle together. The ‘transcend’ method was introduced by Johan Galtung (Transcend International 2019) and is fundamentally based on transforming conflict by peaceful means, including dialogue, negotiation, and mediation. The transcend method involves constructing new realities among the range of parties.

Where conflict exists, a mediator is required to facilitate dialogue among the parties. Once a dialogue emerges and develops, the parties in conflict can deepen their understanding of each other’s perspectives and communicate in such a way that a divergence of perceptions can take place.

In open science, where researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and civil society members aim to share data, code, and protocols, and to collaborate with each other to produce scientific knowledge applicable to real world problems, the transcend method can provide openness and a virtuous cycle toward constructing a continuous dialogue among all parties.

Ethical equity

Ethical equity requires special attention to empowering marginalized (or ‘small voice’) actors. It involves considering procedural or distributive justice for a variety of individuals with different goals and ideas, including marginalized people. For example, knowledge and information are regarded as resources that should be fairly evaluated and distributed. Attention must be paid to the process itself before directly aiming for agreement, especially ensuring that the voices of marginalized people are not masked. Organizers and/or facilitators should spare no effort to understand marginalized people involved in their decision process.

FAIR data principles

FAIR stands for: Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable. These principles place importance on the ability of data to be found and used automatically by machines, as well as re-used by humans.

Next steps

Evaluating the effect of boundary spanning in open team science is an important next task. Useful assessment methods include participatory observation, semi-structured interviews, and periodic questionnaires. These can examine project outcomes, processes and the perceptual transformation of participants.

What do you think? Do this framework and the key concepts resonate with your experience? Are there other issues that you think should be considered?

To find out more:
Kondo, Y., Miyata, A., Ikeuchi, U., Nakahara, S., Nakashima, K., Ōnishi, H., Osawa, T., Ota, K., Sato, K., Ushijima, K., Vienni Baptista, B., Kumazawa, T., Hayashi, K., Murayama, Y., Okuda, N., and Nakanishi H. (2019). Interlinking open science and community-based participatory research for socio-environmental issues. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 39: 54-61. (Online) (DOI – Open Access): https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2019.07.001

Bellingen, G., Durval, C. and Mills. A. (2004). Data, information, knowledge, and wisdom. The Way of Systems website. (Online): http://www.systems-thinking.org/dikw/dikw.htm

Transcend International: A Peace Development Environment Network website. (2019). (Online): https://www.transcend.org

Biography: Yasuhisa Kondo PhD is an associate professor at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN), Kyoto, Japan. He is interested in the promotion of open science to address socio-environmental issues, and is coordinating a meta-research project titled “Information Asymmetry Reduction in Open Team Science for Socio-environmental Cases” at the RIHN (https://openteamscience.jp/en/).

オープンチームサイエンスという考え方 / Theoretical framework for open team science

An English version of this post is available







(4)主体間の対話をうながすこと が重要です(図1・2)。

kondo_theoretical framework_principles citizen science



kondo_theoretical framework_key concepts



「とりつくしま」とは、ここでは関心事の異なる主体が一緒に取り組める目標を見つけて共有することを指します。元々は英語でTranscendといって、平和学者のヨハン・ガルトゥング(Johan Galtung)が、対話や交渉・調停といった平和な手段・方法によって対立や紛争を解決に導くための方法として提唱した概念です。「とりつくしま」を見つけることは、異なる主体が新しい現実を共創することを意味します。










近藤康久・宮田晃碩・池内有為・中原聖乃・中島健一郎・大西秀之・大澤剛士・太田和彦・佐藤賢一・牛島 健・Bianca Vienni Baptista・熊澤輝一・林 和弘・村山泰啓・奥田 昇・中西久枝, 2019. Interlinking open science and community-based participatory research for socio-environmental issues. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 39: 54-61. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2019.07.001 (オープンアクセス)

Blackboxing unknown unknowns through vulnerability analysis

By Joseph Guillaume

Author - Joseph Guillaume
Joseph Guillaume (biography)

What’s a productive way to think about undesirable outcomes and how to avoid them, especially in an unpredictable future full of unknown unknowns? Here I describe the technique of vulnerability analysis, which essentially has three steps:

  • Step 1: Identify undesirable outcomes, to be avoided
  • Step 2: Look for conditions that can lead to such outcomes, ie. vulnerabilities
  • Step 3: Manage the system to mitigate or adapt to vulnerable conditions.

The power of vulnerability analysis is that, by starting from outcomes, it avoids making assumptions about what led to the vulnerabilities. Continue reading

What motivates researchers to become transdisciplinary and what are the implications for career development?

By Maria Helena Guimarães, Olivia Bina and Christian Pohl

Author - Maria Helena Guimarães
Maria Helena Guimarães (biography)

If disciplines shape scientific research by forming the primary institutional and cognitive units in academia, how do researchers start being interested in and working with a transdisciplinary approach? How does this influence their career development? Continue reading

Looking in the right places to identify “unknown unknowns” in projects

Author - Tyson R. Browning
Tyson R. Browning (biography)

By Tyson R. Browning

Unknown unknowns pose a tremendous challenge as they are essentially to blame for many of the unwelcome surprises that pop up to derail projects. However, many, perhaps even most, of these so-called unknown unknowns were actually knowable in advance, if project managers had merely looked in the right places.

For example, investigations following major catastrophes (such as space shuttle disasters, train derailments, and terrorist attacks), and project cost and schedule overruns, commonly identify instances where a key bit of knowledge was in fact known by someone working on that project—but failed to be communicated to the project’s top decision makers. In other cases, unknown unknowns emerge from unforeseen interactions among known elements of complex systems, such as product components, process activities, or software systems. Continue reading

The role of persistence in influencing policy with research

By David McDonald

Author - David McDonald
David McDonald (biography)

Seeking to influence policy with our research is difficult. Sometimes we feel that it is too hard, we are not achieving our goals fast enough, and we really should give up and find easier ways of operating. However, persistence, rather than giving up, seems to be a characteristic of those of us working in this domain!

What do we mean by persistence? A good dictionary definition is ‘continuing firmly, especially despite obstacles and protests’. Does that sound familiar: facing obstacles to doing high-quality implementation work, and protests from colleagues who do not share our perceptions of the value of working in this manner? Continue reading