Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Known unknowns and unknown knowns

“Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because 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 don't know.”

Thus spake US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. And he was widely ridiculed, lampooned, mocked, pooh-poohed, railled-at, chaffed, derided and lambasted for it.

But I really like it. Once you get over the absurdity of the phrasing, there’s a really rather neat four-part matrix which can be applied when you’re planning a strategy for anything.

For example:

Suppose you are Rafa Benitez, the manager of Liverpool FC, and you have to play against Chelsea. So you’re planning your team formation and strategy.

1. The known knowns
First, you must consider the known knowns. That is, those items which are relevant to your planning, and of which you’re certain in the knowledge. That’s easy. Eg, you know that Chelsea are dangerous from set-pieces, so you practice them accordingly.

2. The known unknowns
Next, the known unknowns. These are the areas which you know you have to consider, but you’re aware that your information about them is incomplete. For example, you know that Chelsea will play a striker, but you’re not sure which one, as they have several good forwards each with their own unique strengths. So you need a Plan B and C for dealing with each accordingly.

3. The unknown unknowns
These are factors that you can’t possibly predict and which may take you by surprise. So you have to be ready to change your plans, expect the unexpected and be adaptable. For example, you might have your goalkeeper sent off in the first five minutes, requiring a complete tactical adjustment.

4. The unknown knowns
I don’t think that Rumsfeld actually included these, and it’s debatable whether they actually exist. But you could give this label to those snippets of information that don’t really form part of your planning, but could be utilised should the need arise. For example, Chelsea might be awarded a penalty in the game with their usual taker off the pitch. Up steps John Terry to take it, and you happen to know that he always puts penalties to the left-side. So you instruct your keeper to dive that way.

So there you have it. Donald Rumsfeld: not a senile mean old clown too lazy to sign condolence cards at all, but a logical and tactical genius.


martpol said...

Yes, I never thought that was Rumsfeld's greatest/worst Rumsfeldism. My favourites:

"We do know of certain knowledge that he [Osama Bin Laden] is either in Afghanistan, or in some other country, or dead."

"I believe what I said yesterday. I don't know what I said, but I know what I think, and, well, I assume it's what I said."

But surely the best (not because it sounds stupid, but because it is surely inscrutable): "Going to war without France is like going duck hunting without your accordion."

Brit said...

You can't help wondering if Bush deliberately chose for his right-hand man the only person in the US who could make him look eloquent by comparison.

Having said that, I quite like the duck-hunting/accordian one. It's so undiplomatic.

annalouise said...

I have a duck. His name is Henry. He has added Mr Rumsfeld's name to his list of enemies.
He likes music and anticipates a long holiday in Provence next year.

annalouise said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Hey Skipper said...

I guess I disagree. I can think of no more concise, and grammatically correct, way of characterizing the various combinations of knowledge and lack thereof.

Go ahead--try to improve upon it.

Brit said...

Skipper -

No, we agree. I think it's cool. I only called the phrasing 'absurd' because, although it is as concise as possible, it's not the sort of thing that one ought to just launch on unsuspecting audiences without some sort of explication. Normally it pays to be concise, but not always...