The Danger of Knowing

cautionAs a leader in any form there is a real danger to knowing too much.  That seems counter intuitive to most people.  However, when we fall into the trap of assuming we know enough we will be blindsided by the unknowns that sneak up on us.

There are four categories of known information (Donald Rumsfeld addressed this issue in 2002):

  1. Known Knowns – These are the things we know that we know.  This is clearly front of mind information.
  2. Known Unknowns – These are the things we know that we do not know.  This can be found in data we need to collect to understand a problem, but we don’t have it yet.
  3. Unknown Knowns – This is the information that has become so ingrained we no longer think about it, we just act on it.  Our unconscious mind controls this information.  Consider tying your shoes, do you really have to think hard about how to do it; no you just tie your shoe.
  4. Unknown Unknowns – Here is the scary part of things, this is the information we don’t know and have no idea we are missing it.

As a leader you have to recognize that there is information you do not have yet.  The trick is how you get that information.  Succeeding at this is the key to risk management and ironically team empowerment.

Here are some tips for you:

  • Understand your limits:  Be totally honest with yourself and your team on what you know and what you don’t know.  Remember there are things you are not aware of yet.
  • Ask for input:  The people on your team have different experiences and so have different knowledge.  Ask them what they know about the situation and what else they think they need to know to be effective.
  • Be open:  Keep an open mind and look for subtle indicators of things that you were not aware of yet.  This means that you must keep all your options open early on, do not narrow your choices too soon or you will limit the knowledge you gain.
  • Question everything:  Ask lots of questions.  Great ones are “what else?” “What could go wrong?” “What else do we need?” “How can this be better?” “Could we be wrong?”

If you adopt these tips into your team planning sessions, whether it is for a project or a new product or just working more efficiently, you will find out things you were not aware of and get better solutions and ideas.

The more information you can gather the better you can handle the risks involved in any activity.  You won’t eliminate all risks or even uncover all unknown unknowns but you will be better prepared when something happens.  Thinking about contingencies will not minimize every risk, yet people become more flexible when they have explored other options.  This allows them to adjust more quickly when a problem is encountered.  Avoid analysis paralysis – you will never know everything you could about a situation, so if you get to 80% of the information you are good to go.

Another benefit of these tips is that you are engaging and including your team in understanding the situation.  This is a critical component of effective teams.  People will do more with less if they feel they have had a part in creating the solution.  They will be more loyal and more responsive.

Remember that assuming you know enough is dangerous ground and will set you up for unexpected problems, your team will be less engaged and your risks are much higher.  The best leaders know that they don’t have all the answers and they need help to discover the risks and better solutions.


Filed under Leadership, Project Management, Team Building

5 responses to “The Danger of Knowing

  1. A great reminder that we never know it all. We need to always learn and grow. Dan Forbes from the Lead With Giants Community said it well via Twitter today: “Be a student of leadership and you’ll become a better leader”. Thanks Carol for this post! .

    • Thanks Cynthia. I’ve been nervous some lately because there have been people who expect me to have more knowledge on a topic than I have. I have made some educated decisions but as a it’s collaborative project I want, and frankly need, input from others to make sure we are on the right track. It got me thinking about the unknowns around me right now. 🙂

  2. I think the way you’re handling the unknowns in your collaborative project is great, and this post is good advice for other leaders who find themselves in a similar situation. I personally think that “question everything” by asking questions of your team is a good rule of thumb because it allows you to expand into those unknown unknowns with both caution and support. The two most important questions are “What if?” and “What else?” BTW, I picked the latter from you!

  3. The one point I like best is the one about seeking the input of others. This is especially helpful when we don’t know what we don’t know. Others can see things that often we cannot. I like the Rumsfeld points and find a lot of wisdom in them.

  4. Pingback: The Danger of Knowing | Leadership and Art or t...

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