Way back in 2002, Donald Rumsfeld gave a News Conference at the Pentagon. It was a year before the invasion of Iraq, and barely 6 months after 9/11.  Shockingly that time (looking back from now) feels almost stable.  It was in answer to a question about available intelligence and evidence concerning WMDs in Iraq that the famous ‘known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns’ quote appeared.

It was, then, considered a surreal sort of verbal evasion that perfectly echoed the Presidential style of communication.

Times changed, and in the face of a never ending stream of unknowns the quote gathered a sort of wisdom. Most of us will have made some reference to ‘unknown unknowns’ when discussing tricky situations.

In the UK currently the results of a fate-changing national referendum and the findings of the Chilcott report are being digested. Both could be said to be prime examples of complex scenarios with many ‘unknown unknowns’ unfolding.

But they aren’t.

An uncomfortable theme links both of these scenarios; a theme combining two common behaviours,

  • The inability to speak frankly.
  • The failure to say ‘no’, or ‘this is not possible’, or ‘this is not true’ to those deemed more senior or powerful.

On a smaller scale, this theme appears in every example of dysfunctional team /or organisational behaviour with which I work.

The connection with Rumsfeld is simple.

Like a magician he directed us to an area of ‘unknowns’.

The real area we should all be watching constantly is the known.  And we should be calling it, every day, loudly.

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