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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How can we distinguish between knowledge and ignorance and our meta-knowledge of these – that is, whether we are aware that we know or don’t know any particular thing? The common answer is the 2×2 trope of: known knowns; unknown knowns; known unknowns; and unknown unknowns.
For those interested in helping people navigate a complex world, unknown unknowns are perhaps the trickiest of these to explain – partly because the moment you think of an example, the previously “unknown unknown” morphs into a “known unknown”.
My interest here is to demonstrate that this 2×2 division of knowledge and ignorance is far less crisp than we often assume.
This is because knowledge is not something that exists in the world but rather in individual minds. That is, whether something is ‘known’ depends not on whether someone, somewhere, knows it; but on whether this person, here-and-now does.
In a 1993 paper, philosopher Ann Kerwin elaborated a view on ignorance that has been summarized in a 2×2 table describing crucial components of metacognition (see figure below). One margin of the table consisted of “knowns” and “unknowns”. The other margin comprised the adjectives “known” and “unknown”. Crosstabulating these produced “known knowns”, “known unknowns”, “unknown knowns”, and unknown unknowns”. The latter two categories have caused some befuddlement. What does it mean to not know what is known, or to not know what is unknown? And how can we convert either of these into their known counterparts?