Leadership Blind Spots: We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

leadership unknownsDo you remember the quote from former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; “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 know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we don’t know we don’t know.” As humorous as this was at the time it points to something important for business, there are lots of things we don’t know that we don’t know and they have an impact.

This is important to recognize because these “unknown unknowns” inform, or rather, don’t inform our decisions. Have you ever been so sure of something that you would bet everything you had on it? Only to be glad later you didn’t because there was something that popped up from left field you weren’t aware, of that changed the game, and therefore the outcome? These are the things we don’t know we don’t know.

The issue is we are often so confident in our “opinions” that we don’t even ask questions before proceeding with a decision or plan. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been so sure of something only to be so wrong it was embarrassing later. This confidence in opinions shows up two ways in the workplace. First, an event happens and people forms opinions about it based on their past experiences. Only one “opinion” is actually true or right, but the group will get to work defending their various interpretations of the event. This wastes a lot of time and energy, and doesn’t get us closer to the real interpretation of why something happened the way it did. This process is counter-productive and time consuming. Unfortunately, an “unknown unknown” was likely part, or all of the cause, and in the process of defending opinions, it will remain unknown.

The second way this shows up is in our problem solving, creating new products or services, or in general trying to think about things differently. As we age, we gather more and more data and we pull from our mental reserve, (aka “our expertise”), to solve problems and come up with new ideas. What if that data is faulty? What if the information is outdated? What if there are “things we don’t know that we don’t know” out there to help inform the decision and we don’t ask the questions to uncover or lead to revealing the unknowns? I happened on a show on the Discovery Channel about the guy who invented the AK-47 gun. No education, no formal training, and really no background, other than being a soldier that would design a gun that could perform in the most extreme of circumstances. Why was he able to do this when the educated gun makers of the time were not? He asked “why not” and went on to prove that it could be done. As I’ve talked about before, this is innovation, and asking the right questions to get new and different answers is critical to the process. However, in order to do this effectively you have to “know” that you “don’t know what you don’t know.” Question what you think you know and investigate what you don’t know. You might be surprised at what pops up!
photo credit: WingedWolf via photopin cc