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Unknown Unknowns

Understanding problems more than solutions


Donald Rumsfeld, during a press conference at NATO Headquarters in 2002

“Now what is the message there? The message is that there are no "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. So when we do the best we can and we pull all this information together, and we then say well that's basically what we see as the situation, that is really only the known knowns and the known unknowns. And each year, we discover a few more of those unknown unknowns.”

You don’t know what you don’t know.

Very few people make deliberately bad decisions. Why would you? You make the best decision with the information available to you. The problem is that in many complex situations, you have a knowledge deficit, and decisions that benefit from experience are particularly problematic as you can easily substitute research for experience. That is, you are faced with a difficult problem that you have not experienced yet so you evaluate your options with the information you can collect from a variety of sources. This information is stuff you know you know. It is the least dangerous form of knowledge.

The Fundamental Mistep

Most people will spend more time determining which of an array of options is best than they will confirming that the field of options is complete or making sure they are considering the right options.

This is part of the reason why smart, creative, strategic people make bad decisions. As Michael A. Roberto, author of “Know What You Don’t Know: How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen” writes, “It’s not that they can’t see the solution. It’s that they can’t see the problem.”

The Role of Behavioral Psychology

In “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, a behavioral psychologist widely considered the foremost expert on judgment on decision making, Kahneman writes that our brains will, in any circumstance possible, try to limit the amount of mental energy required to answer a question. Our fast-thinking, intuitive brain will over-simplify complex questions or answer completely different ones. That answer will then be passed on to our logical, thoughtful brain, which, being naturally lazy, will often accept the answer without much forethought of its own. This is one of the principal reasons we can feel like we have a thorough understanding of a problem or solution without actually having one.

The Importance of Mentorship

Research is not a substitute for experience. Seek an active mentor or leadership figure to confirm that the right questions are being asked in the right way. In my personal experience, my mentors have been able to identify problems that I never even considered.

Combating what you don’t know you don’t know

Understand the problem more than the solution: Aggressive pessimism pays off. A better understanding of the problem will allow you to ask more specific and relevant questions of a potential solution.

Eliminate disasters: There is no way you can know everything. So when addressing a challenge, try to identify what the disaster would be and take steps to choose a solution that will not trigger said disaster.

Seek help: If you don’t have a mentor, find one. If you can’t, do the next best thing—ask questions to people smarter than you who are in the same field and to some who are outside it.

Accept that you don’t really know: Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt once said of the housing bubble, “You don’t know it’s a bubble until the bubble ends.” You don’t know know what you don’t know until it bites you in the ass. The best you can hope for is to be better when it does.