Looking to be innovative? Embrace the unknowns

rachel audige
8 min readDec 7, 2023

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 do not know.
Finally, there are unknown knowns
The knowns
We do not want to know.

— Donald Rumsfeld’s words made into a poem by an unknown creative

What I’m calling ‘The Know-all Effect’ is our preference for — or obligation to — jump to solutions rather than exploring all the possible gaps in our knowledge. I see this as one of the many biases to which experts are overly prone — and one that can easily get in the way of more robust and creative solutions.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes what he sees as two distinct analytical systems. Somewhat simplistically, System 1 is the ‘fast’ or automatic system that is unconscious, intuitive and immediate. System 2 is the slower ‘controlled system’ that involves conscious analysis and reasoning. This is part of the thinking that helps us calibrate choices, make decisions, engage in metacognition and exert self-control. We use System 2 to train System 1 to recognise and respond to situations.

One of the upsides of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic was that many people — at least those not consumed by online calls — claimed to have had more time to think. Maybe there was more ‘System 2’ thinking going on then –and now — as certain professions continue to work from home & are less likely to be accosted for a fast response in quite the same way…

Still, as a general rule, despite all the emphasis on mindfulness in the literature and online, we do not have many situations in our lives where slower, more deliberate System 2 thinking is nurtured.

Often, we feel compelled to have fast answers and quick solutions. Sometimes our thinking is ‘hijacked’ by those who are supposedly listening to us as we mentally fend off their interruption.

More often than not, in many professions, we are expected to know-it-all. We are supposed to ‘get to the point’. We are forced into a reactive — as opposed to a responsive — mode which can undermine the quality of our thinking, our ideas and our ability to engage in any sort of metacognition whereby we take the time to consider our thought process or what is behind our thinking.

Creative workshops are no different. In my experience, businesses want problem solving exercises to be done quickly (and all the more so now when they need to be run online). There is a preference for crispness over curiosity. Speed over quality of discussion. Innovation is done in ‘sprints’ and hackathons are packing so much into such a short time they can give you a creative hangover.

In all this I sense a definite dis-ease with navigating weirdness and ambiguity — and I don’t mean silliness or unfruitful blue sky thinking — I mean making the mental effort and investment to explore the murkier parts of a problem, a topic or our minds.

I sense a definite dis-ease with navigating weirdness and ambiguity…

And yet, this is a necessary part of thinking differently.

Maybe the best way of illustrating the impact of this on creativity and innovation is to explore what we might unearth if we take the time to think about our thinking.

EXPLORING AMBIGUITY & UNKNOWNS

If cognition is the process of learning, ‘metacognition’ is the process of observing the process of learning and using a feedback loop for self-regulation; it’s the ability to ‘think about the thinking’. The more we can be aware of our thought processes, the more we can mitigate ‘blinkered’ thinking .

A useful metacognition tool that serves to remind me of gaps in my thinking; that helps me navigate ambiguity and de-bias my thinking is the Ignorance Map. This map is the work of the philosopher Ann Kerwin who, throughout the 1990s, built on her framework of metacognition around knowledge and ignorance.

I have captured some thoughts on how we might step through this map to engage in more conscious creative thinking and counter this ‘Know-All Effect’:

© Anne Kerwin’s Ignorance map — redrawn by illustrator, David Francis for UNBLINKERED.

STEP ONE is off the Ignorance Map. It involves asking What are the things we are aware of knowing? The KNOWN KNOWNS.

These are the facts we are confident about. They tend to be the ‘givens’ of a project or problem, the hard data, the observed customer behaviours, the clearly expressed needs. You can choose to take these at face value or you could challenge them by asking: How do you know this to be true? Is this true in this context? Could the opposite be true?

Scanning for biases like cognitive fixedness or challenging possible assumptions in ‘known knowns’ may bring surprising results!

STEP TWO is where we explore things that we know (i.e. are aware of) that we don’t know — KNOWN UNKNOWNS.

Known unknowns often imply some sort of a ‘risk’, but since we can identify them, we can potentially measure this risk, understand it and investigate more to transform them into ‘known knowns’.

For example, we might realise that we don’t know how many people have purchased a product of interest and will seek the market research to find it out. Or we may note that we do not have data for when users click on a link and seek out this information.

For STEP THREE we try to ascertain whether we are conscious of what we are not exploring — things we don’t know (i.e are not aware of) that we don’t know — these are the UNKNOWN UNKNOWNS.

This is probably the hardest type of ignorance since these encompass what we are not aware of and therefore can’t plan for, analyse or take action against. We don’t know what we don’t know. They are quite literally our blind spots and we have a vast range of frameworks and tactics available to try to flush them out.

Any tools that help you think differently about a topic may help, such as:

▶ Simply bringing a diverse group of people together and being curious and inclusive. This is the #1 bias buster.

Customer journey mapping.

Jobs to be done questioning.

Asking better questions of your business model.

Reframing.

▶ Scanning for fixedness. Given the prevalence of cognitive fixedness and the power of harnessing templates, you might also try manipulating the process, problem or product using robust methods such as Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT). This method is a sharp tool when it comes to exposing ideas, solutions or resources that were hiding in plain sight.

“…Our unconscious reactions come out of a locked room, and we can’t look inside that room. But with experience we become expert at using our behavior and our training to interpret — and decode — what lies behind our snap judgment and first impressions.”- Malcolm Gladwell

STEP FOUR involves exploring possible ERRORS including, but not limited to, assumptions and biases.

My premise is that it is useful and valuable to have an open conversation about biases in the room—indeed, they are likely to permeate the entire map, but the more aware you are of what might be at play, the more chance you have of debiasing your creative thinking.

This is a process that needs to be tackled with humility. This same humility should remind us that we may make mistakes and we should accept being challenged—even by someone we perceive as being less experienced.

Find ways of challenging the beliefs and assumptions within your organisation and be open to letting people challenge the beliefs and assumptions you, personally, hold to be true about what ‘right’ looks like. A good way of cultivating this is to create a buddy system with someone you trust and ask them to call you out on your thinking or your ‘mental model’.

In STEP FIVE you may wish to consider the UNKNOWN KNOWNS

This zone is often overlooked or just misinterpreted. They are conspicuous by their absence in Rumsfeld’s speech. Unknown knowns are the things you didn’t realise you knew but that it might be helpful to mention. I can often identify these when we explore beliefs or assumptions. The idea of ‘unknown knowns’ sounds ridiculous but it turns out that our knowledge is based on many things of which we are not aware—instincts, intuitions or other factors we think are trivial. An example of this is speaking our mother tongue, or drawing on skills that we learned at a young age, such as skiing or simply bike riding. It’s only when a novice asks us how to do something that we realise that we do it automatically; it’s not something we even realise we know.

In popular fiction, one of the most poignant examples of characters not knowing what they know are Dorothy’s companions in The Wizard of Oz. Putting aside any alleged political symbolism, the Scarecrow, the Tin man and Cowardly Lion all seek external magic to give themselves qualities they already possess. They just didn’t know they had them.

Not being aware of ‘unknown knowns’ can lead to a range of biases including imposter syndrome (that persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud) or, reversely, the curse of knowledge (a cognitive bias that occurs when an individual unwittingly assumes that others have the ability to understand them). Or, quite simply, it might make us take a long and unnecessarily perilous trip along a yellow brick road!

Another nice way of avoiding this particular blindspot of unknown knowns is to incorporate a moment of appreciation in all others. I learnt this from the work of Nancy Kline. Most of us are uncomfortable with positive feedback as much as we crave it. It helps remind us of what we know. Teaching, writing and speaking on areas of expertise also help us realise what we know (as well as what we don’t!).

STEP SIX is subject to the focus of your creative thinking and innovation efforts—and the sense of psychological safety in the team—but you may next find ways of venturing into what Kerwin identified as dangerous, polluting or forbidden knowledge, referred to as TABOOS in the Ignorance Map.

What are you too nervous to look at here?
What is the most dangerous discovery you could articulate?
Who would be endangered and why?

Sometimes the taboo might be as simple as a decision made by the manager that no one has dared to challenge or the possibility of someone being fired or of a mistake someone made that no one wants to name.

If the group dynamic allows it, for STEP SEVEN you may also touch on knowledge that you really don’t want to confront about yourself when tackling this challenge—the DENIALS.

Are we receptive to the opposite?
Are we triggered by certain ideas, words, attitudes?
Are we falling into forms of ableism, sexism, racism…?

The fact that we trust our expertise is often a positive. We would be paralysed if everything required overthinking. That said, the more conscious we are of our thinking, the more likely we are to identify our blind spots. Scanning for what we know and the spectrum of unknowns can help us think more clearly and potentially unearth different ideas. It does, however, require a solid dose of humility, curiosity, intellectual rigour and acceptance of the unknown.

Rachel Audigé is an innovation facilitator, trainer, writer and mentor. She published ‘UNBLINKERED: The quirky biases that get in the way of creative thinking…and how to bust them’ and will launch a French adaptation in January. Get in touch if you are keen to be in awe of the obvious.

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rachel audige

Unearthing resourceful ideas hiding in plain sight. I am a Franco-Australian facilitator, trainer and writer on innovation and creative marketing & strategy.