Understanding Unknown Unknowns: A Brief Exploration

In our journey of knowledge and discovery, it’s not only what we know that matters, but also what we don’t know. The term “unknown unknowns” dives deeper into the latter, offering a framework to understand the uncertainties we’re not even aware of. Let’s explore the history and significance of this intriguing concept.


A Glimpse into the Past

The term “unknown unknowns” entered the popular lexicon largely thanks to Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary of Defense. In 2002, during a news briefing about the lack of evidence linking the government of Iraq with the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups, Rumsfeld famously said:

“[…] 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.”

Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary of Defense

Though Rumsfeld popularized it, the idea behind “unknown unknowns” was not new. Philosophers, scientists, and strategists have long grappled with the limits of knowledge and the vast expanse of the unknown.

Known Knowns and Unknown Unknowns

Unknown Unknowns
Things we are neither aware of nor understand.
They could be emerging threats or opportunities we haven’t identified yet.
Known Unknowns
Things we are aware of but don’t understand.
For instance, we might know that there’s a problem with a machine, but we don’t know what’s causing it.
Unknown Knowns
Things we understand, but are not aware of.
A seasoned cyclist intuitively adjusts to a new bike, using skills they’re not conscious of.
Known Knowns
Things we are aware of and understand.
For example, we know that the sun rises in the east.
Table of Known Knowns and Unknown Unknowns

The Utility of the Framework

Understanding the categories of knowns and unknowns can be critical in many fields:

  1. Risk Management: In business, understanding unknown unknowns can be the difference between success and disaster. By acknowledging that there are factors beyond our perception or prediction, companies can better prepare for unexpected disruptions.
  2. Scientific Discovery: Many groundbreaking scientific discoveries come from venturing into the unknown unknowns. It’s the acknowledgement of “we don’t know what we don’t know” that often pushes the boundaries of human understanding.
  3. Personal Growth: On a personal level, recognizing unknown unknowns can open the door to humility and continuous learning. When we acknowledge that there are things beyond our current understanding, we become more receptive to new information and experiences.

Addressing the Unknown Unknowns

While it’s impossible to predict or account for every unknown unknown, awareness is the first step. Strategies to deal with them include:

  • Diverse Teams: Diverse teams bring a range of perspectives and experiences, increasing the chances of spotting potential unknowns.
  • Feedback Loops: Regularly seeking feedback can uncover blind spots you weren’t aware of.
  • Scenario Planning: While we can’t predict every uncertainty, imagining a range of possible futures can better prepare us for unexpected turns.

Concluding Thoughts

“Unknown unknowns” is more than just a catchy phrase; it’s a reminder of the vastness of the universe and the limitations of our knowledge. By recognizing and respecting these gaps, we not only safeguard against potential pitfalls but also open ourselves to profound discovery and growth. In the dance between knowledge and uncertainty, the unknown unknowns hold a special place, urging us to look beyond the horizon and always remain curious.