Donald Rumsfeld was right


I was reading an article in Project Manager Today magazine (more interesting than it might sound) about 'Unknown Unknowns and Risk' and it made reference to Donald Rumsfeld's infamous comment about "we know there are some things we do not know". Actually, he was making sense in a garbled sort of way as he referred to a well-known model of knowledge vs. awareness - an example of which is the Johari Window.

In the article, this matrix is adapted to explain the relationship between knowledge and risk, where not knowing what you don't know implicitly represents an unquantifiable risk. Interesting enough surely, but it got me to thinking about the nature of Business Intelligence, Analytics and decision-making in changing environments.

Many organisations think they know what they know - they make decisions in the certainty that they are acting on valid assumptions and to exploit their core strengths (I have however come across many examples where this 'certainty' was a lot less certain than assumed).

Research-led organisations know what they don't know and explore the implications of their ignorance, but do so towards a specific objective (they want to change unknown to known).

Amnesiac organisations are not realising perhaps one of their greatest untapped assets -

the volumes of data and information that they generate doing business, but which simply gets filed and never looked at again. Using a proactive approach, they could (re-)discover what they already knew and exploit it (the multiplier return on the investment to do this is often many-fold).

Finally, they say that 'ignorance is bliss' - I for one don't agree (I hate surprises). That said, it's a perfect environment for experimentation

without preconception - even if the results are going to be unpredictable.

Whatever quadrant you find yourself in, one thing remains true - awareness (and exploitation) of what you know (or don't know) is the least risky place to be - just ask anyone associated with the sub-prime lending market right now.


About Author

Peter Dorrington

Director, Marketing Strategy (EMEA)

I am the Director of Marketing Strategy for the EMEA region at SAS Institute and have more than 25 years experience in IT and computing systems. My current role is focused on supporting SAS’ regional marketing operations in developing marketing strategies and programs aligned around the needs of SAS’ markets and customers.

1 Comment

  1. Dear Peter,

    Interesting what you say about the Johari window.
    In what article you found this window?

    Me, I have used a similar window, to say something about the role of ignorance in our viewing and doing science at the Universties.

    If you are interested, I may send you a copy of my article.

    Best Wishes, from

    Ton Jorg

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