Monday Mornings with Madison

Unknown Unknowns – When You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Knowledge is power.  That’s true in any society or culture anywhere in the world.  Knowledge empowers one to navigate a complex world in the best, most efficient, most effective way with the least amount of snags and waste.  This has been true since before recorded history.  In fact, the 13th century Persian-Tajik poet Ibn Yamin wrote about men and knowledge:

One who knows and knows that he knows…
His horse of wisdom will reach the skies.
One who knows, but doesn’t know that he knows…
He is fast asleep, so you should wake him up!
One who doesn’t know, but knows that he doesn’t know…
His limping mule will eventually get him home.
One who doesn’t know and doesn’t know that he doesn’t know…
He will be eternally lost in his hopeless oblivion!

It is important to be ‘in the know.’  But given today’s sophisticated, complex, high tech society, having complete knowledge about everything is impossible.  In an ever-increasingly intricate world, there is so much to know about so much.  No one’s knowledge is ever complete.  We each have many important things that we know are unknown, and many more unknowns of which there isn’t even an awareness.  These are the unknown unknowns.

A blog post by the Harvard Business Review recently touched on a related topic.   The post pointed out that “when put to the test, most people find they can’t explain the workings of everyday things they think they understand.”  That is to say, even about the things we think we know, there is likely a gap in real understanding.  This is true of items we see and use daily such as a cell phone, airplane or radio.  It is also true of things in nature such what causes rainbows and or what makes ocean look blue?  Try to explain the why of such things and most people are likely to find that they have some understanding of how it works or why it is so, but it is an incomplete understanding.  There are gaps in understanding.  In psychology, this is known as the “illusion of explanatory depth.”  So even when we think we know something, there are often gaps in our knowledge.    And this only touches the tip of the iceberg of things that we don’t know.  In addition to the things we know partially, there are the things we don’t know at all.  And, on top of that, there are the things that we don’t know and don’t even know that we don’t know.  So how do we come to know something we need to know but don’t even know that we don’t know?  It is something of a conundrum.  For people in business, it is a catch-22 that can be costly.

Figuring out the unknown and the unknown unknowns is a perpetual but important process.

1.  Accept that learning never ends

Knowledge is a journey, not a destination.  The first step in finding out about things that you don’t know but should is to internally acknowledge that you don’t know everything, including important things you probably need to know.   This is actually one of the most important qualities of truly successful and innovative people.  The most brilliant people recognize that they actually know very little and freely admit it.  They have no shame in acknowledging that they don’t know something.  Socrates perhaps said it best:  “All that I know is that I know nothing.”

2.  Identify ‘Explanatory Gaps’

For managers and business leaders, it is important to be willing and able to identify when there is a gap in knowledge.  How do you know when there are gaps in what you know?  Start by trying to explain what something is or how something works to yourself… or to someone else.  That process generally reveals gaps in knowledge and reveals concepts that are unclear.  This is an important step in helping to know what you don’t know.

3.  Fill gaps in knowledge

When you find something you don’t fully understand, ask questions about it to fill in the gaps.  It is okay for a leader to admit to not fully understanding something within a business or department.  What is not okay is for a leader or manager to accept not knowing or understanding something and not bothering to fill in those gaps.  Whenever possible, fill gaps in knowledge because that is where innovation begins.  Innovation questions the assumption that you and the people around you have a complete understanding of a problem or process.  Sometimes, uncovering the flaw in that assumption helps to identify opportunities and solutions.

4.  Encourage others to fill their gaps in knowledge

Helping others to identify their own knowledge gaps may feel uncomfortable.  To some, it may come across as a challenge or put down.  But asking coworkers to explain difficult concepts or processes will not only help yourself and others to understand the idea, it will also uncover places where colleagues don’t understand critical aspects of that concept, idea or process.  Forcing everyone to fill the gaps can help all the pieces fit together better and allow operations to function more smoothly.  When knowledge gaps are discovered, treat them as opportunities to improve, not signs of weakness.

5.  View problems as indicators of unknown unknowns.

Filling knowledge gaps to eliminate the illusion of explanatory depth only goes so far in helping you know what you don’t know but should.  It doesn’t help know about things that you don’t know that you don’t know… precisely because you don’t know about it at all.  Identifying areas or topics about which there is a complete lack of knowledge is much harder because there is no indicator that can help point out the gap.  There is no point where one crosses from ‘something I know’ to ‘something I don’t know’, as happens with an illusion of explanatory depth.  The only clue to tip off that there may be an unknown unknown is when you encounter an ongoing problem.

Perhaps, for instance, there is a problem at a company that continues to plague a department.  It happens regularly.  Questions were asked.  Research was done to solve the problem.  No solution was found.  The problem persists.  Work-arounds were implemented to get around the problem, but they are inadequate.  That is the tip off that there is probably something you don’t know that you don’t know.  Given the complexity and technological advances of society today, many problems have probably been tackled by someone, somewhere, somehow.  What may be missing is not the solution, but the ability to find the solution.  Perhaps your own staff doesn’t have the solution but a consultant or expert in a related field might.

  1. Search online.  Think about what industries or fields of study are related to the problem.  Share the problem and ask for solutions.  Every industry has blogs where experts in a field discuss solutions.
  2. Subscribe to expert advice.  If the web does not immediately offer a solution, don’t give up.  Consider subscribing to a journal in that area of specialty.  Often the latest research is published in journals that are available online but only by subscription.
  3. Read books on the topic or related topics.  Sometimes the solution lies in the periphery of the problem.
  4. Attend a conference.  If nothing turns up there, consider attending a conference related to that field.  Conferences are excellent places to identify experts in a field who may have a greater depth of knowledge and be able to offer a solution.

Chances are that an in-depth search to identify a solution to an ongoing problem is going to reveal some information that you didn’t know (and didn’t know that you didn’t know) that either provides an existing solution or, even better, leads to a completely new innovation.


6.  In new situations, be a sponge.

Chances are high that when you find yourself dealing with a new situation, there are likely to be many things that you don’t know…. including important things that you don’t know that you don’t know.  Whenever you find yourself in a new situation by choice, chance or divine plan, take it as a given that there is probably important information you don’t know but should.  In new situations – starting a new business or job, moving to a new home, dealing with a new illness, engaging in a new relationship, launching a new product — be a sponge.  Listen more.  Seek more information.  Ask more questions.  Be more engaged.  Make a point to read more, especially reliable sources.  For spiritual people pray for wisdom.  Only by being curious and open to new information are you likely to discover those things that you don’t know you don’t know.

No one can know everything about everything.  The world is too complex.  There are always going to be things that we don’t know fully, things we don’t know at all, and things we aren’t even aware of not knowing.  But it is important not be complacent or accepting about a lack of knowledge, especially in the face or an obstacle, challenge or new horizon.  We should seek to discover the things we need to know even when they are hiding from our very awareness. 

Quote of the Week

“There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.  There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know.  But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.” Donald Rumsfeld, former U.S. Secretary of Defense


© 2012, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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