The concept of “we don’t know what we don’t know” was nothing new in 2002, when the erstwhile Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld described it during a media briefing:

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 tend to be the difficult ones.

Rumsfeld’s rambling word salad, reminiscent of a college student’s “in conclusion” paragraph that needs to stretch a six-page paper to the required minimum seven, was met with ridicule at the time. But history has been kind to the quote, and it now serves an apt descriptor for an evergreen challenge. Rumsfeld himself even referenced it in the title of his memoir, Known and Unknown.

For business leaders, known unknowns can be scary, but unknown unknowns can be downright terrifying. Whereas known unknowns prompt inquiries with clear direction, with unknown unknowns you’re often left to wonder what questions you should be asking. What major concerns do I need to watch out for as I embark on a highly technical project? What’s going to be the next cataclysmic event around the corner in this crazy year? And that’s before you even begin going about mitigating those concerns, or preparing for those surprise events.

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We’ll never be able to know all the things we don’t know. But we can prepare ourselves for the unknown by sharpening the tools that allow us to nimbly respond to the unknown as it arises. Here are a few ways we can prepare ourselves for whatever business challenges may come our way.

Surround yourself with intellectual curiosity

When interviewing people for any team I’ve lead, I’ve always approached the process with one ideal goal: hire people who are smarter than me. Leaders from middle management all the way up to the executive suite need to set aside their egos to build a dynamic team.

Take an honest inventory of critical areas of expertise in your industry and identify where you are strongest and weakest. Find people who complement and augment your own skills and experience. Avoid the common fear that an impressive subordinate will take your job; I see that as a feature rather than a bug. Delegating responsibilities to a capable replacement will free up your time for new challenges and pursuits.

Envision failure

Leaders are visionaries. When we think of people with great vision, we think of inspiration and aspiration. We tend to see them as optimists. Having a clear and positive vision for the future is essential. But it’s also helpful to use that same imagination to picture the opposite outcome—how can an endeavor go horribly, terribly wrong. When you have a sense for what that looks like, reverse engineer that outcome. What would have to happen in order for your initiative to fail so miserably?

This will give you some ideas on potential pitfalls, but more importantly, it serves as a practical tabletop exercise. It’s not possible to envision ALL of the ways a project can fail, but thinking about how you would respond to hypothetical roadblocks will train you to make better decisions when an unforeseen challenge arises.

Talk it out

We have a concept in programming called “rubber duck debugging.” When wrestling with a stubborn bug, an effective way to find the problem is to explain, line-by-line, what your code is trying to accomplish. To anyone, or anything. A non-technical colleague. A baby. Your cat. Or yes, a toy rubber duck. The exercise allows programmers to articulate slowly and carefully what the code is trying to accomplish while reading what it actually does. This makes it easier to spot the disconnect.

With known unknowns, we can easily identify an expert to bring us up to speed when we need help. With unknown unknowns, it can be difficult to figure out where to turn. Look to your colleagues, your network, and those smart leaders you’ve surrounded yourself with. And if all else fails, just talk out the problem to whomever—or whatever—is willing to listen.

Where to start?

There is a clear path for resolving the problems we would characterize as “known unknowns”: identify the issue, create a plan to resolve it, and execute the plan. Unknown unknowns stop us at that very first step, where it’s difficult to even determine what the problem is, let alone how to solve it. Solving our known unknowns is like training for a sport. There are specific workouts we can focus on, muscle groups that we can target, and skills that we can easily identify and develop. Preparing for unknown unknowns more closely resembles exercising for the sake of improving overall health. We don’t prepare with a particular activity in mind, but we prepare in a way that equips us to tackle a wide range of challenges. By equipping ourselves with a broad individual skill set, and surrounding ourselves with a diverse team or experts, we can be prepared for whatever may come our way.

If you’re having trouble figuring out the right questions to ask, Trilix can help. Sign up for a free consultation to talk through your business challenges with one of our experts.

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