Unknown unknowns are challenges that we will face in future that we do not foresee today.
Here I argue that an important subgroup of unknown unknowns occurs when some phenomenon that we know a lot about has an unexpected effect on another phenomenon that we know a lot about, especially when there are few links between the two silos of knowledge. An example is unanticipated “interactions” between medications prescribed by medical practitioners from different specialities. Here I explore such disciplinary interactions more generally.
Disciplinary scholars focus on interactions among the phenomena that their discipline studies, but usually ignore interactions with phenomena studied in other disciplines. The academy as a whole thus devotes little attention to interactions among phenomena studied in different disciplines.
I have explored major historical transformations, which were generally surprises at the time and found they always involve interactions among the phenomena studied by multiple disciplines.
The concept of unknown unknowns highlights the importance of introspection in assessing knowledge. It suggests that finding our way in the set of known-knowns, known-unknowns, unknown-knowns and unknown-unknowns, reduces to asking:
how uncertain are we? and
how aware are we of uncertainty?
When a problem involves a decision-making team, rather than a single individual, we also need to ask:
how do context and perception affect what we know?
How can we best live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world? How can we shift from a worldview that looks to predict and control what is to be done through plans and strategies to being present and flexible in order to respond effectively as unexpected changes take place? How can we be open to not knowing what will emerge and embrace uncertainty as the opportunity to co-create and learn?
One powerful and promising way forward is Theory U, a change methodology developed by Otto Scharmer and illustrated below. Scharmer introduced the concept of “presencing”—learning from the emerging future. The concept of “presencing” blends “sensing” (feeling the future possibility) and “presence” (the state of being in the present moment). It acknowledges that we don’t know the answers. Staying at the bottom of the U until the best potential future starts emerging requires embracing uncertainty as fertile soil.
Why do very few people enjoy sitting comfortably with their unknown unknowns? Why is there an uncomfortable liminality ‘betwixt and between’ the known and unknown worlds?
How can we explore unknowns in a more speculative, playful, creative capacity, through our imaginations? How can we use lack of knowledge to learn about ourselves and let it teach us how to be comfortable and curious in the midst of unknowing?
The power and allure of unknown unknowns have long been recognised by creative practitioners as a holy grail for inspiration. Borges wrote in The Library of Babel about a fictitious library where all books ever written existed together, but this library turns to a dystopia as the reader discovers that “the certainty that everything has already been written annuls us, or renders us phantasmal.”
Improved resilience can contribute to the ability to deal with unknown unknowns. Dealing with uncertainty is also at the core of every planning activity. The argument put forward here is that planning processes should be considered a cornerstone for any given resilience approach. An outline of planning and resilience is given, before presenting fundamental aspects of planning that should be strengthened within a resilience strategy.
From attempting to do as much as possible within a day’s work, to launching rockets into space or managing a nation, everything requires planning. The backbone of planning is widely recognised to be a more or less complex and distributed decision-making process that establishes priorities for the allocation of resources and attempts to reduce (down to levels deemed acceptable) uncertainty associated with the pursuit of such priorities.
Change can be expected, envisioned and known, and even created, accelerated or stopped. But change does not always follow a linear and predictable path, nor is it always controllable. Novelty and surprise are inescapable features of life. Non-linear change can involve threats or opportunities.
Although it defines the world we live in, who we are, the outlooks we have and what we do, we often do not relate to non-linear change in a meaningful way. What is holding us back from engaging with it? How do we deal with non-linear change? And what are promising ways forward?
Why is thinking about and anticipating non-linear change difficult?
Generally speaking, non-linearity is difficult to define and conceptualize, because there are multiple interacting forces at the intersection of many domains, manifesting on different spatial and temporal scales and many different actors and (often conflicting) perspectives are involved.
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).
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. The causes of the vulnerabilities are effectively a ‘black box’, in other words, they do not need to be understood in order to take effective action. The vulnerability itself is either a known known or a known unknown. The causes of the vulnerability, on the other hand, can be unknown unknowns.
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.
With the right mindset and toolset, we can shine a light into the right holes to uncover the uncertainties that could affect a project’s success.
Do you use writing as a means of accessing your unconscious knowledge and understanding? The electric experience of things falling into place is a well-recorded outcome of ‘writing to find out what you want to say.’ E. L. Doctorow is credited with saying that writing a novel is “like driving at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way” (no formal reference identifiable, but see Quotation Celebration). There is a sense of allowing the unfolding journey to deliver you to your destination, and experiencing the energy rush when you arrive. It’s a matter of relinquishing control and being open to the unexpected.
Australian novelist Helen Milton Bastow described an equivalent revelation. A fiction writer, Bastow had avoided researching Indigenous stories about the places of her childhood in case they overly influenced her own story telling. One day, however, she was on an eco-trail in the Coorong, South Australia, when she happened upon an information display about the local Indigenous dreamtime:
To use or not to use a new and promising but unfamiliar and hence uncertain innovation? That is the dilemma facing policy makers, engineers, social planners, entrepreneurs, physicians, parents, teachers, and just about everybody in their daily lives. There are new drugs, new energy sources, new foods, new manufacturing technologies, new toys, new pedagogical methods, new weapon systems, new home appliances and many other discoveries and inventions.
Furthermore, the innovation dilemma occurs even when a new technology is not actually involved. The dilemma arises from new attitudes, like individual responsibility for the global environment, or new social conceptions, like global allegiance and self-identity transcending all nation-states. Even the enthusiastic belief in innovation itself as the source of all that is good and worthy entails a dilemma of innovation.
An innovation’s newness and the uncertainty of its promise for improvement is the source of the dilemma. Tomorrow we will understand the innovation better, its dangers and its benefits, but today we must decide.