The Known/Unknown Spectrum

During a DoD news briefing in February 2002, the then US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spoke about ‘Unknown Unknowns’ in talking about the lack of evidence in Iraq supplying weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups. Although Rumsfeld brought the phrase ‘Unknown Unknown’ to a much wider audience, it originated from a technique created in 1955 called the Johari window. In 2002, Rumsfeld stated:

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because 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. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.”

Everything in life is meant to move you towards the Known Known category—it is the reason that you go to school, read books, study, and have supervisors at work (assuming they are of any value). While initially overwhelming, the spectrum is a simple idea that has vast impacts. The spectrum can be best laid out in the graph below:

Unknown Knowns

Using this analytic technique to understand the current state of the people you work with and where they are at effects your daily strategic approach. For example, when presenting your work, everyone you are speaking to will often collectively fall into one of these groups. Framing your work for which group you are presenting to impacts the effectiveness of your presentation. Speaking on a topic to an audience who is very familiar with your topic (Known Knowns) will look differently than presenting to an unfamiliar audience (Unknown Unknowns).

Although a simple concept, utilizing the technique of Known/Unknowns in your daily life (work and otherwise) will continue to help not only your overall strategy, but additionally the effectiveness of your communication.

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