In Pursuit of ‘Unknown Unknowns’

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’?

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