Unknown Knowns

Unknown Knowns

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There’s a quote that I always remember, for some reason. It was from Donald Rumsfeld, then United States Secretary of Defense, prior to the Iraq War in 2002.

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because 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. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, or vice versa.”

Now, I am no fan of war or conflict, but that frame of thinking has always stuck with me. The missing variant in this riddle-like description is the concept of ‘unknown knowns’. How many people who worked for him, or in the community he operated in, knew something that he and those around him didn’t know?

For leaders, this is an interesting thing to sit with. How different would the outcomes have been, if the best frame of view could have been harvested from that system?

This is the problem with hierarchical organisations. Their structure creates a lot of blind spots that need not be there and, for me, that is a complete waste of human potential.

What fascinates me more than anything about the work I do, these days, is how many answers to challenges already exist in the minds of our community. In fact, it blows me away every single day – the weird and wonderful knowledge and experience of the people I spend time with, when I learn more about them.

The real challenge is to leverage and capture the human capital we have access to. Much of what I do in the community is meeting people from all walks of life, to find that out. Because we work around societal structures and work from a place of deep trust, we tend to surface a lot of unknown knowns. We are able to find some of the best ideas and best resources that exist within the community and join the dots that need to be joined together.

Again, it is very simple, and much of it involves just taking the time to really get to know lots of people. It isn’t an action-focussed approach. It is a connection-focussed approach that creates action as a byproduct.

This is happening much more, as the structures of society are changing. Look at how far industries like music, film, publishing, etc, have all been changed, since the traditional gatekeepers have had less influence. The more we can create structures that allow human potential to flourish without restriction, the more unexpected things can surface. This is now happening everywhere and is creating an explosion of innovation, the like of which has never been seen before.

There are literally billions of new minds coming online in the next few years, and our capacity to harvest existing human potential is also increasing, exponentially. It is an extraordinary time, that will see the emergence of a new world, far more beautiful than we realise is possible.

What answers to the challenges you face are held by the people around you?

How is structure getting in the way of sharing ideas, knowledge and solutions?

How can getting to know people more, deliver more for you?

How can you leverage the collective strengths of those around you?

To surfacing unknown knowns.


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  1. Ran Dass said he noticed how much Rumsfield upset him, so he put a picture of him on his little shrine next to his loved ones and his guru.

    All of which goes to show we can learn from even those we might otherwise oppose.

    I guess that’s a known unknown…

    The unknown unknowns are the ones that interest me, as that points the way to different levels of knowing, beyond the mind.

    That said, a lot of what I find I have to work with is unknowing the known knowns. Hmm…

  2. Sounds like listening, not just with your ears but with your eyes and intuitive feelings, comes in handy here, if nothing else, to spot the potential of others not even known to themselves.

  3. In any situation or skill we’re trying to progress at, there is:
    1) What we know
    2) What we don’t know
    3) what we don’t know that we don’t know

    I just used this in a speech the other day, so it’s funny that I came across this article right now. Well written!

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