Trying to Innovate? Beware of the Know-All Effect!

rachel audige
8 min readFeb 28, 2024

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

Expertise is a magnet for biases. We seem to have a preference for jumping to solutions rather than exploring all the possible gaps in our knowledge. I have called this the Know-All Effect and it is completely at odds with our ability to navigate uncertainty and ambiguity which is so essential to the creative process.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes what he sees as two distinct analytical systems. 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.

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.

The quality of everything we do depends on the quality of the thinking we do first.

Nancy Kline

More often than not, 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 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.

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.

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 and when we take the time to think about our thinking…

Exploring Ambiguity & Unknowns

“…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

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 ‘debias’ my thinking is the Ignorance Map illustrated below:

Redrawn for the authors book UNBLINKERED from the work of Ann Kerwin.

This map is the work of the philosopher Ann Kerwin who, throughout the 1990s, built on her framework of metacognition around knowledge and ignorance.

Having discovered this in a session for University Technology Sydney, I have captured some thoughts on how we might step through this map to engage in more conscious creative thinking and counter the know-all effect.

STEP ONE is off the 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 so-called ‘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 blind spots like ‘cognitive fixedness’ (a state of mind in which an object or situation is perceived in one specific way, to the exclusion of any alternative — a huge obstacle to creative thinking) 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. 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:

▶ Customer journey mapping.

▶ Jobs to be done questioning.

▶ Asking better questions of your business model.

▶ Reframing.

Actively seek fresh perspectives to give you a different take on things. Working with a diverse team will help; someone may ask naive or insightful questions that reveal these blind spots.

Given the prevalence of cognitive fixedness and the power of harnessing templates, I tend to apply the method of Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT) which is particularly sharp when it comes to scanning for blind spots and unearthing counter-intuitive ideas. This may expose ideas, solutions or resources that were hiding in plain sight.

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

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. 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 political symbolism, the Scarecrow, the Tinman 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).

One way of avoiding this particular blindspot of unknown knowns is to incorporate a moment of appreciation in all workshops and interactions to hear positive feedback from others. (Make sure it is Short, Specific and Sincere!) 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?

Unconscious biases — or ‘blinkers’, as I call them — can serve a purpose and 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 a marketing and innovation facilitator, trainer and writer. She is the author of UNBLINKERED (also adapted into French as ‘Innover Sans Œilleres). This chapter is an extract from her book. She is passionate about busting biases to help unearth ideas that my be hiding in plain sight.



rachel audige

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