Unknown Unknowns

by Krishna on January 7, 2011

Jurgen Appelo’s take on unknown unknowns needs a little more work:

It is important to understand that the unknown always depends on the observer. Some people already knew about black swans, but that didn’t make them any less surprising to those who had never seen them. My fellow board members already knew they wanted to leave their positions a good time before they shocked me with their announcements. […] Getting people together to share information and make joint decisions is the best way to deal with the unknown.

About “unknown unknowns”:

  1. If something will happen, but you don’t know “if” or “when”, it is a “known” unknown. Someone leaving your organization is a known unknown because you know employees do leave companies, but you don’t know when. You can put in possible scenarios and plan for them.
  2. “Unknown unknowns” are the events that you don’t even know about or you dismiss as highly improbable without thinking twice. For instance, 9/11. Yes, we have all heard of hijacking, but 4 planes hijacked at the same time bringing down 100-story buildings would have seemed like ridiculous fiction till it happened.
  3. Which means that you have no way of planning for it. You are totally blindsided when it happens. For known unknowns, you can list them and plan for them.

The mistake that people make is thinking that “unknown unknown” is equivalent to “something bad”. We know of many bad things that could happen to us and we can prepare for them. If you can list an example of “something bad”, that instantly makes it a “known” quantity. It is similar to the management principle that the very act of measuring changes what is being measured. Example: Measuring bug count dramatically reduces the bugs reported (and perhaps, actual bugs, though that is not a given).

What can you do about unknown unknowns? Nothing much really, except insurance. If something bad happens to you, you need to think of the worst possible effect and buy insurance to protect yourself. Unknown unknowns could also be large positive events (obscure relative dies and leaves millions to you). I don’t know if you need to even worry about that, but maybe you do.


Jurgen Appelo January 9, 2011 at 12:38 pm

I’m in agreement with what you’re writing here.
But your post does not at all explain why I am “missing the point”.
Your post does not conflict with mine.

Krishna January 9, 2011 at 2:32 pm

Jurgen, your post is not in conflict, but it is incomplete. We can reduce the universe of “unknown unknowns” with greater knowledge sharing. But we can never reduce it to zero. Also, since we don’t know what the universe is, we don’t even know if our knowledge sharing has made a significant difference to that universe. And so, we have to deal with the consequences of those unknowns we will never know. Part of the answer is insurance (in all senses of the word).

Jurgen Appelo January 9, 2011 at 3:13 pm

OK, but I didn’t try to be “complete”. And “incomplete” sounds better than “misses the point”. 🙂

Krishna January 9, 2011 at 3:28 pm

Agreed. I have corrected the wording. 🙂

Ted Winslow February 19, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Another way to look at the concept of “Unknown unknowns” may be “Unanticipated Consequences”. This often becomes a stumbling point when talking to potential users. Clients often become obsessed with demanding that a system or strategy should never be able to be “beaten”. However, a consultant can anticipate 400 potential consequences to an action and plan for all 400. The 401st may be the one that completely torpedoes the whole project.

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