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Knowing what we know

2 min read

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Nearly 20 years ago, former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, when asked about a lack of evidence linking Saddam Hussein to weapons of mass destruction used to justify the invasion of Iraq, offered this famously roundabout explanation:

"There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know."

Setting aside the politics involved, let's seek to understand this passage. If we break it down, the statement isn't complicated. In fact, it's a useful framing to approach marketing and business strategy.

  1. First, known knowns. These are easy to understand. We know what we know. We can rely on this information. In a business or marketing sense, a known known could be the product or service you sell or the cost to produce your product or service, or anything else you know with confidence about your current business and strategy
  2. Known unknowns are equally important. These are questions we don't yet have answers to. We know there's something we must uncover, but we haven't yet uncovered it. Known unknowns are action items: we don't have an answer yet, but we can allocate resources to get that answer. This is where the research component of a strategy comes into play.
  3. Unknown unknowns are the things that blindside you. A new competitor enters the market and unexpectedly disrupts your vertical. Extreme weather abruptly disrupts your supply chain and you're left scrambling. Unknown unknowns are either things we haven't considered — questions we don't even know to ask — or things we cannot know because they're random, chaotic or simply outside the scope of our understanding.

We can never eliminate unknown unknowns entirely. All we can do is plan to mitigate them. This is about agility of thought: chaos is a constant. By its nature, we cannot predict chaos. How can we leverage the unknown to our benefit? We must decisively react to it based on all that we do know.

These three categories of thought provide a framework for business decision-making. When approaching a difficult problem, first identify what you know. Then, ask what you don't know but wish you did. Finally, be prepared to adapt to the things you cannot know. It's simple, yes.

But it's effective.

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