What you don't know you don’t know

“Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite—it is a passionate exercise. You may come out of my play uncertain. You may want to be sure. Look down on that feeling. We’ve got to learn to live with a full measure of uncertainty. There is no last word. That’s the silence under the chatter of our time.”

John Patrick Shanley, Doubt

Without any grounding in epistemology (the study of knowledge and justified belief), I’ll step forward, up and out of the depths of my ignorance and pose three questions on areas of understanding that philosophers, leaders, and managers should consider. They are enough to keep you up nights, and occupied for the rest of the day.

  1. What do you (think) you know
  2. What do you know you don’t know
  3. What do you don’t know you don’t know

Once, during a news conference, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said,

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.

This volley of phrases brought Rumsfeld the Foot-in-Mouth award from the British Plain Language Campaign. But, for the record, I agree with Rumsfeld.

Number 3—what do you don’t know you don’t know—is confounding. In marketing communication and in business, we make it a strategic necessity to understand our industry, our competitors, and the strengths and weaknesses of our own organization. We can test number 1—what do you (think) you know. And we can research number 2—what do you know you don’t know. But number 3 is no less important. It borders but goes beyond the idea of unintended consequences for well-intended actions. Politically, it may be akin to supporting free elections in the Middle East, which subsequently leads to new governments that may be hostile to our interests or allies. What? Who knew?

Send in the Clowns

What you don’t know you don’t know goes deeper. It may—and most often should—involve voices from outside one’s field of interest to help generate the right questions. What don’t we know, even to ask? Bring in the scientists. What will it have to do with natural species selection? With world hunger, or global climate change? What will the cultural changes mean? Will it have economic impact 50 years from now? Or on immigration a couple of generations from now?

In business, we want to live on the cutting edge, beyond our competition. This may mean asking questions about technology that may be seemingly unrelated. Bring in technology experts, and the science fiction writers. Does string theory have anything to do with it?

Radio Check

An example, reaching back to my business school days, is when an airline wanted to make their check-in lines more efficient and have happier customers. They benchmarked with production engineers working for radio talk shows. They asked how the station managed the line-up of callers waiting to get on air. The two industries could not be more different, but the convergence on customer satisfaction provided a new way for the airlines to consider their “terminal” solutions.

In the article “One Conversational Tool That Will Make You Better at Absolutely Everything,” Evan Ratliff, a former writer for The New Yorker before founding his startup, Atavist, says one of the most important skills he learned as a journalist is “being able to formulate questions that deliver useful answers, whether from advisors or clients or whomever.”

Taken a step farther, it’s important to find the people and organizations that help us to form the questions we can’t even imagine asking yet.

Posted by Frank J. Mendelson | Business, Business Communications, Marketing, Communications | Comments 0 |
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