The unknown

Dick Cheney was famous for popularizing the phrase, "there are unknown unknowns." The idea of an "unknown unknown" is that we don't know that we could know something. For example, a "known unknown" is that I don't know what the weather will be like next month. I know weather is a variable, just I don't know what will happen.

Today I watched an episode of "Brain Games," a show about how the brain works and how the brain can be tricked. One exercise was to give people a prompt, such as "how many countries are there in the world?" and ask them to list a low and a high estimate such that the actual answer would be between the two numbers. Many people listed numbers like "low: 50 / high: 70" or other similarly tight ranges. They were then usually wrong with these tight ranges. However, it would have been fine to say "low: 1 / high: 1000."

The idea behind the game was to show that people can be overconfident in what they (think they) know. There are many reasons why people might list a tight band rather than a broad range: maybe they don't realize that a broad range would be OK? Maybe they would feel embarrassed by not being able to prove that they know the answer? Maybe they really don't know that they don't know? Maybe they just want the game to be over with?

The rewards of the unknown

"We are here to have fun, to learn, and to make a difference." - Dr. W. Edwards Deming

I am very motivated by learning. I like being surprised by things I don't know. For a while I was a Gartner seat-holder at work, which basically means I could call Gartner (an IT research company) and ask them questions. Nine out of my ten calls ended with the Gartner analyst having a fundamentally different perspective from me, and I was therefore exposed to new mental models and modes of approach.

The "Plan/Do/Check/Act" cycle essentially says to use the scientific method: you need to check, or test, that your plans worked. This check step is the core of learning.

In order to learn, I try to check very often, even for things that many people might take for granted. I check to make sure that people understood my e-mails; I check to see whether work I thought was done really got done; I check in by asking open-ended questions to learn things that aren't on my radar.

I regularly find in checking that my assumptions were invalid, or that I didn't understand the problem/issue. For example, I might build a report; then when I check with people using the report I might find people only need one key number from the report. Often, checking helps me learn more context for work I am doing.

The vulnerability of not knowing

The book Helping, by Edgar Schein, is about "the nature of a helping relationship." One of Schein's points in the book is that someone asking for help is "one down" in the relationship because they're admitting they can't do something themselves. Many of Schein's techniques are in trying to balance the relationship so that the helper can get better information from the person asking for help (such as learning more about the real underlying issue).

I gave a presentation in 2013, "Riding the Maturity Model Wave," about how to effect cultural change for IT process improvement when change is threatening to people. Many people derive their power from knowledge, and being open to learning implies that you do not know everything.

Admitting that you don't know everything can affect your social status. At the same time, people and organizations improve through learning. "Lean" approaches such as those used by Toyota try to create a culture of problem-solving; to that end many Lean books, such as Toyota Kata, discuss how to change a culture so that people are more motivated to learn.

Not knowing and worldviews

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few." -Shunryu Suzuki

I remember going to a great day-long leadership development session where the speaker said, totally seriously, "to begin, we must question the fundamental nature of the universe." (He was a very systems-oriented person.)

I identify with Zen Buddhism, and not knowing in the context of the eightfold path. In my experience, some parts of the eightfold path such as "right speech" are relatively straightforward to understand (even if exceedingly hard to practice). Other parts are somewhat less straightforward, such as "right view."

Right view, or sometimes "right understanding," arguably could also be called "no view." People have preconceived notions and mental models that limit their ability to perceive the world. This is a topic of the heart sutra, which says for example:

Form is no other than emptiness /
Emptiness is no other than form.

For me, by perceiving the world we already are deluding ourselves. Even what we see is not what's "really there"–our optic nerve and brain filter what we see. As a simple example, most of the time I don't notice myself blinking. Being open to the unknown is therefore in alignment with my worldview. I believe there are innumerable unknown unknowns and I like reinforcement that my mental models are never adequate.

On the other hand, many people operate with worldviews that insist that fundamental assumptions not be questioned, which makes it hard to be totally open to unknown unknowns.