“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
The aforementioned quote has had a disproportionate impact on my worldview and has played a pivotal role in keeping me grounded and intellectually curious. As a researcher and consultant, it’s imperative to have a beginner’s mindset while investigating underlying issues and arriving at hypotheses and conclusions, based on data analysis and discussions with relevant stakeholders. However, experience often becomes a huge liability while eking out actionable insights and innovative strategies as ego kicks in and we assume we know it all.
I use a few strategies to keep looking for the ‘unknown unknowns’ which helps me stay grounded.
Open Slate: Begin any research or problem-solving process, genuinely believing that issues remain outside the purview of our current worldview, and relentlessly keep pursuing those ‘unknown unknowns’.
Don’t pigeonhole yourself: We have certain specializations and expertise, which can oftentimes become our identity, leading to certain limitations in thinking broadly. For example, a development practitioner with extensive experience in WASH might not be able to think beyond his area of specialization. Every problem is complex and multi-dimensional, requiring systemic solutions. It’s important to identify oneself as a problem solver with a mandate for solving complex challenges through diverse means and staying humble, disciplined, and curious during the process.
Think Laterally: Most challenges are complex and require multifaceted thinking. Keeping this in mind while designing a solution is imperative for success. For example, a marketer might be concerned about his brand’s growth, but it’s unwise to consider this to be a marketing problem; rather, there are elements of sociology, anthropology, psychology, economics, and other relevant disciplines to be considered during the diagnosis phase and while devising strategies.
Tribe of Mentors: While we can’t become master of all, there are ways to identify potential gaps by regularly interacting with accomplished individuals from diverse disciplines. I have tried to systematically build relationships with individuals from non-business backgrounds, starting from software developers, policy analysts, and lawyers to sociologists, doctors, and engineers. I regularly seek their counsel on relevant issues, seeking help to identify reading materials, courses, and video content.
Keep Learning: While specialization is imperative for becoming professionally successful, holding on to success and moving ahead of the pack requires adopting a fork strategy, which means identifying and building expertise in parallel disciplines. I have met a doctor who became adept at analyzing data using R and Python; a sociologist who became a successful marketer; and a development practitioner trained as a software engineer. Oftentimes, our biggest inhibition to growth is our fixed mindset.
What strategies do you pursue for identifying your ‘unknown unknowns’?
Stay up-to-date with our Thought Leadership and Insights