Dealing with what you do or do not know

Journalists were quick to start making jokes when former United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld talked about known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. It may not have been the most eloquent way of making a point but a good point he did make. Rumsfeld talked about the evidence (or lack of) for weapons of mass destruction under Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The Secretary tried to clarify that when you make a decision you know that you don't know the full story and that there will also be surprises.

It turns out, the breakdown as Mr. Rumsfeld introduced it, is also very good way of looking at your customers, how they engage with you and what you think you know about that. Because of direct customer contact or surveys for instance there are quite a few things you know about your customers' appreciation or lack thereof for what you are delivering, whether it be a service or goods. You also know there are things that you do not know about how your customers really see you and the service or good you provide. As Peter Drucker famously noted, 'a customer rarely buys what a company is selling him'. In other words, your customers may have quite a different view on what you offer than what you think you do. Finally, there are things about your customers that will surprise you as there are things that you don’t know you don't know.

One worthwhile exercise is to get a few people from your team together and note the differences between the things you think you know about your customers and how they see you and what you may notice when observing them. Try listing all the things you think your customers appreciate but also don’t like so much about you and your brand. Next, refresh that view by asking your customers for feedback in a way that is very, very different from the regular way you ask for feedback. The framing of a question can already have a dramatic effect on the answer and what you can learn from it, sometimes in ways you are not even aware of. So reverse it, flip it around, approach it from a completely different angle. Have your customers describe you using a picture for instance. By using a picture, your customers may tell you something even they don’t fully realize. A technique that can be helpful in this exercise if the ZMET technique as formulated by Gerald Zaltman of the Harvard Business School. Even if you go about this in your own, light way without using the full ZMET process - you may be surprised by the output.

Quite possibly, an exercise like this will get you more insights into the 4th piece of the 'Rumsfeld's Knowns and Unknowns'. Added later by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, the 4th category is the unknown known. In other words, the things that we kind of know but don't really want to accept or acknowledge. Sometimes enforced by other processes like group think, it happens more than we'd like that something everybody knows kind of knows gets ignored in a group of people. Often this is because that piece of knowledge may challenge the prevailing view within the team or organization and people are afraid to voice that, something that may be strengthened in a culture of fear and retribution. Even though looking back is always easy, research has shown that ignoring unknown knowns is one of the reasons why organizations fail.

The remedy for this is to regularly check if what you think you know is still valid. Is what was true 5 years ago still true? How about 1 year ago? If not, in what way is this reflected in how your process work? How you deal with your customers? Only by regular checking and updating what you think you know can you make sure that your box of knowns is much bigger than the other boxes in Rumsfeld's frame. Doing this well keeps you connected to your customers in ways that are relevant for them.