Unknown Unknowns

Noah Brier has a great analysis of the true origins of the ‘Unknown unknowns’ framework which looks something like this:


Despite being brought to wide attention by Donald Rumsfeld’s remarks about Iraq, the concept has origins that seemingly stretch further back and derive from a military procurement context. The framework is a useful way of categorising risk but also reminding us that unknown unknowns are potentially dangerous territory, precisely because they are unknown. Noah pulls out a quote (referenced by Rumsfeld in his memoir) from nuclear strategist/game theorist Thomas Schelling who wrote about Pearl Harbour that it was not true that the US government was caught napping at the time. Rarely, says Schelling, has a government been more expectant but they just expected wrong:

‘There is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable. The contingency we have not considered seriously looks strange; what looks strange is thought improbable; what is improbable need not be considered seriously.’

This is a problem in business. Particularly when we live in an era when the seemingly impossible can become possible very quickly. Not only do we shy away from seriously considering the improbable, but when the improbable happens we struggle to appreciate the threat and/or respond in the right way. As I’ve written before the temptation in the face of unpredictability is often for leaders to demand certainty through rigid plans or precise outcomes when in reality what is needed when faced with complex or unknown scenarios is strategy that is far more emergent. We need to look for patterns through experimentation. We need greater manouevrability.


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