We don’t know what we don’t know

I’d just finished delivering a short podium session at an exhibition in Earl’s Court, London when I was approached by a former colleague. We exchanged a few pleasantries and agreed to meet up very soon for a proper catch-up, and they were off, their parting words ringing in my ears “we don’t know what we don’t know”.

It was an odd thing to say in the context (or had I missed something) and I often wondered what they had meant by it. In later years as a management consultant, I have grasped more of its value within the context of “knowing what we know”. For example, if I don’t believe I’m able to add value to a client business or their people, I pass on the details of someone who could do a better ‘job’ than I could, rather than attempt to ‘wing-it’.

Many proport that the origins of this saying are in the Donald Rumsfeld, (US secretary of defence) 2002 interview on WMD (weapons of mass destruction).

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know”.

Others believe it goes back to the clearer thinking of Socrates the Greek philosopher almost two and a half thousand years earlier, who sought to understand wisdom, in the context of awareness and knowledge and the desire to remain curious and open. As illustrated by the Sklar Wilton matrix.

Each quartile positions a choice and a response, even if it’s a passive response to ignore it and do nothing. All active responses require, as Socrates said: self-awareness, curiosity, openness to receive and change. Many business leaders, busy doing the doing, fail to see there’s even a choice to be made.

Let’s take a quick look at each quartile:

Things you know that you know (Awareness Yes Knowledge Yes)

Put simply doing what you do day in day out like commuting to work, serving customers, meeting clients, flying planes, teaching children, running businesses.

Things that you don’t know that you know (Awareness No Knowledge Yes)

Best illustrated by the conversations and interactions we have with others – think back to the 2020 zoom quizzes and the oft uttered words “I don’t know where that came from”. Or being able to follow a conversation littered with acronyms NAJ, IoD, C2S, WBS, JBN, MCFC are you still following?  Or in listening to a client, you are able to understand, relate and contribute to the conversation, even though you have never actually worked in their sector.

Things that you know you don’t know (Awareness Yes Knowledge No)

I know how to drive my car, how to refuel, how to check the tyre pressure, how to work the hands-free phone etc but when it comes to servicing or strange engine noises, I know my limitations and I go to my local garage because they know what I don’t know. In business a situation it usually results in the leader deciding to either learn how to do it themselves (assuming they have the luxury of time) or delegating to a colleague or hiring a consultant.

Things you don’t know you don’t know (Awareness No Knowledge No).

 I recently received a quote to have a collapsed drain grill replaced and received two quotes, one was a fixed price, the other was open-ended; because they didn’t know what else they might find wrong once they started the work. The contactor knew what they didn’t know, and the customer (me) had no awareness or knowledge of what might exist under the collapsed drain cover.

In general life, these are our blind spots – the things we are not aware of, they are our unknowns. Awareness of your unknowns makes you also aware that an unknown for you is most likely known by someone else – as a business leader such awareness encourages you to avoid recruiting in your own likeness, to increase the diversity of the team and to hire the external expert as and when required. Though as a white, middle-aged, middle class, male, I’m probably not the best candidate to assist on improving boardroom diversity and inclusion, but I do know someone who knows!

Since 2013 I have been helping ambitious SMEs with their Strategic and Leadership challenges.

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Posted in Company Culture, Decision Making, Management Consultants, Mentoring, Personal Development, Skill Sets, The Boardroom
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