Increase your awareness using the "Knowns and Unknowns "framework

December 10, 2020

The "knowns and unknowns" framework allows teams of any kind to learn more and be more creative (and therefore, perform better). It does that by exploring all forms of knowledge. Only by making this space larger, can a team come up with a larger solutions space.

It was on February 2012 when Donald Rumsfeld coined this term on a US Department of Defense news briefing, trying to answer questions about the lack of evidence linking the government of Iraq with the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups. "There are known knowns", he said.

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.

And so, the Rumsfeld quadrant was born:

When I heard of this for the first time, it really puzzled me and I struggled to grasp the concepts clearly. I finally understood that this framework:

  • Tries to bring more knowledge about a certain context
  • It does it by creating systems that enable surfacing hidden/non-explicit information
  • Some bits of knowledge are observed and some others are not. These bits, at the same time, could be more or less risky.

Like everything in life, complex concepts get simpler after examining some examples. Let's have a look at each of these four "states of knowledge".

The things we know

In particular, this refers to the things we have observed. When trying to increase the knowledge around facts, the best option is to use precisely those facts for that.

Known knowns

This refers to the facts we observe. In software this would equate to placing monitors and alerts, so we could check these facts against them.

With these facts you can generate more knowledge by analogy: "if this service is struggling to serve 100 requests, then this other service will probably struggle as well as they are similar".

Known knowns are a really useful source of knowledge in life. When we learn "cause-effect" in a particular context, we immediately learn to extrapolate it to similar situations. An example of this happens when we learn to push a door when we read the "Push" sign. The next time we read the same thing we will probably push, without even thinking. We've learnt by analogy. It's a known known.

This can be very powerful, as you could create something new and valuable from a not so valuable known known by inferring the knowledge behind the facts.

The winning technique to gain knowledge: lateral thinking (analogies, metaphors).

Known Unknowns

This situation happens when we face an unknown that we observe. In the software world, many people have faced this situation where a piece of code works and the developer is not entirely sure of why. Or a product team may observe that a certain button in a web app is really successful and nobody understands the reasons behind.

In this case, we need to make sure we state the knowledge behind our observations as hypotheses, not as facts. Otherwise, it could lead you to the wrong conclusions. This hypothesis will need to be confirmed or rejected with the use of real facts.

The winning technique to gain knowledge: create a hypothesis, test, measure, iterate and reach conclusions based on facts

The things we don't know

These situations refer to things we don't observe, and therefore we need to use a completely different mindset to deal with them.

Unknown knowns

This refers to biases and unconscious decisions. There is some knowledge on what we do - it's just that we are not conscious about it. They are things we understand but we are not aware of. This is when you say "I think this is the right thing to do" or "this doesn't feel right" (although you may not be able to justify it). Sometimes it's the result of years of experience.

If you want to surface the unknown knowns you can't ask people to be rational about it. Instead, it's better to adopt an approach based on intuition, feelings, emotions and brainstorming. Doing brainstorming as a group is really important, as one idea could be feeding many others in a domino effect.

The winning technique to gain knowledge: feedback, brainstorming, team collaboration

Unknown Unknowns

This is the most complex situation: are we aware of what we are not exploring? We typically limit the scope of our knowledge to a limited amount of information. There's potentially infinite knowledge outside of that.

It is complex because people work better with the things they observe, data and facts. Some theories are even based on previous knowledge (by inference). This can achieve incremental improvements. However, playing with the unknown could take you to a whole new different level. You need a very open mind for that.

In a software product, how can you surface the unknown unknowns? Imagine your users are actually using a spreadsheet as well as your app because they are lacking a certain functionality that is essential to them. Getting to that knowledge could give you a massive competitive advantage. Also, exploring data with a completely different set of glasses may offer hidden and highly valuable insights.

The winning technique to gain knowledge: open mind, out of the box thinking, empathy


Are we aware of the knowledge space in which we typically operate? And what about the one beyond that? With the right mindset, we can get to absorb more valuable insights within our context. It's important to notice the risk and the impact of the "known" space is very different from the "unknown" one. Also, you will need to use different tools in each space to be able to make the most of them.