Forget About The Known Unknowns, It’s The Unknown Unknowns That Get You Every Time

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There’s an old adage that stipulates “generals are always fighting the last war.” This says more about the stultifying effects of age and experience than it does about military acumen.

As we live our lives, we accumulate knowledge. We use this knowledge to provide convenient short-cuts when we make decisions. That’s a good thing.

But those short-cuts assume a certain kind of status quo that cannot exist. That’s a bad thing.

Since we’re on the subject of old adages, there’s one from ancient Greece which warns “you can never step foot in the same river twice.”

At first that makes no sense. Why, just about any GPS will lead you to the same river time and time again. You can even dip your toe in each and every occasion.

Ah, but is it really the same river? Has not the water you touched that very first instance traveled far down the river and probably emptied itself into some larger body of water?

You see, a river is like time. It is constantly moving. The only way to make it stand still is to take a picture of it. Yet, it’s only a picture of what once was. And you can’t go back there.

Do you understand the problems those old generals are having? They’re fighting the last war. They’re assuming nothing has changed, that time has stood still, that they can step into the same river twice.

In short, they’ve got a list of “known unknowns.” These are variables that were present at the earlier event. They assume they will be present once again.

They’re not entirely incorrect in that assumption. Yet they’re not entirely correct, either.

Certainly, the opponent now has the same intelligence. That foe will likely shift strategies and tactics as a result.

It is this shift from the enemy the generals cannot know. We call these the “unknown unknowns.” You can be aware of their existence, but only in a theoretical sense. Therefore, you can never really prepare for them. If you could, they would become “known unknowns.”

Incidentally, the realization of the real presence of “unknown unknowns” leads us to do three things (two of which are obvious): practice, rehearse, and play games.

You practice as an individual so your movements become second nature.

You rehearse with a group so the coordination of your movements become second nature.

But it is within the arena that you learn the most about the “unknown unknowns.” Here the lines are not scripted. You face adversaries equally ignorant of their foe – you. How will they move? How will you move?

And each game is different – different moves and different counter moves. Just as you cannot step into the same river twice, neither can you play the same game twice.

The “unknown unknowns.” Do they sound burdensome to you? If so, you’re no different than anyone else.

People like “known unknowns” because they can, to some extent, be measured. That is the “known” part. The “unknown” part merely becomes a form of scenario analysis.

For example, there’s a “known” fork in the road leading down two “unknown” paths. You can measure the actual fork with extreme precision. And that makes you feel good. You can imagine where each path leads – to gold, to beauty, to terrible monsters. You can mentally prepare for each of those scenarios. And that can make you feel good.

But, because you’re so focused on what’s ahead, you don’t see what’s coming behind you.

It could be a telegram from a rich Nigerian widow who wants you to take care of her $36 million inheritance. It could be a map that describes what’s on each path. It could be an extinction event asteroid nullifying the need to make any decision which path to take.

Those would all be classified as “unknown unknowns.”

Actually, because I’ve listed them, they now become “known unknowns.”

Still, you get the picture. It’s rarely what you expect that does you in. It’s what you’re not expecting.

OK, if that piece of wisdom doesn’t overwhelm you, you’re more resilient than most. (Congratulations, by the way.)

For the rest of us, though, wouldn’t it be nice if we had at least a bread crumb of hope?

Here it is.

“Improv theater”

I can see you rolling your eyes. You’re either thinking, “Chris, I am not an actor!” or “Chris, improv is even more work than dealing with unknown unknowns!”

To the first, I respond: “Is not the world a stage and we but mere actors?”

To the second, I say: “What if I said improv isn’t really improv?”

Do you think they come up with all those jokes out of the blue? No. They practice, rehearse (and probably play games, too).

To them, improv is nothing more than a scenario analysis. (Remember from earlier: scenario analysis makes you feel good.) They already have the jokes. It’s only a matter of fitting them into each scenario.

Here’s an example:

An improv troupe asks the audience to pick an occupation, a game, and a favorite food.

There may seem like there’s a million and one different combinations out of these three things (and there are), but if you break it down to generalities, it gets easier.

Occupations can be office worker, factory worker, and on-location worker.

A game can be a one-on-one game or a team game; a mental game or a physical game; an arena game or a board game; etc…

A favorite food can be classified by food group, food course, or where you get it from.

Once you arrange things into broader groups, it simply becomes an easy task to interchange the specifics. The “spontaneous” improv is nothing more than a version of Mad Libs (the game, not the radical extremist).

Here’s how it might work in this case:

Template: The (worker) was watching a (game) at (worker location) when (game action) turned into a (favorite food). The (game referee) yelled (game penalty) because everyone knows (favorite food’s course) can’t be served before (earlier food course).

Ad Lib #1: “The cable TV repairman just finished fixing the connection when the TV turned on to a commercial showing two kids playing a game of Trouble. One kid rolled the perfect number and moved his peg to the winning square where it promptly turned into a chocolate cream pie. The mom, who was watching, scolded the boy. ‘Johnny, you know you can’t have dessert until you’ve finished your vegetables.!’”

Ad Lib #2: “The welder was watching a game of baseball when the pitcher threw a medium rare steak right down the middle of the strike zone. The ump yelled ‘Ball’ because everyone knows the main entrée can’t be delivered before the appetizer.”

Ad Lib #3: “The attorney was watching a game of tennis at the office when the server hit a fruit cup over the net. The line judge yelled ‘Fault!’ because, everyone knows the appetizer can’t be served before cocktails.”

So, the next time you’re headed into that big meeting, practice your presentation and rehearse it in front of a friendly audience. Finally, play a game with it by asking a not-so-friendly audience to criticize it in all ways. Then collect all your specific responses to those challenges, categorize them, and make a few generic templates out of each category.

By definition, you can’t know the “unknown unknowns,” but you can create generic templates to be ready for what gets thrown at you, including a dessert before the main entrée!

(Remember, always expect the unexpected.)

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