Examples of unknown unknowns – a personal take

A personal take on why it’s important to have examples of unknown unknowns that tell of opportunity as well as threats, and a story of an unknown unknown that happened to me.

Audio recording: Examples of unknown unknowns

Adrian Cowderoy, May 2021
24th May 2021, home recording

Script from the recording

Some unknowns haunt us. For me, the unknown-unknown that changed my perspectives was not the most dramatic one I’ve seen, and it was presented as a technical problem; although really its origin was with people and the dangers of “group think”.

Some years ago I was sitting alone in a meeting room lined with glass partitions and empty chairs. Everyone else was late. When they arrived it was all together and with furtive glances to each other. They crowded at the far end of the table to me.

“Adrian, we have a big problem. It won’t work.” The leader put a printed diagram on the table and pushed it towards me. “And without this, your entire programme will collapse.” He waved theatrically, as if wiping away a million pounds of investment. There were many people were yearning to see us succeed. “What shall we do?” he asked.

I looked at the other faces. They were watching my every movement.

The initial answer was easy. “We stop jumping to conclusions, you look at options, and I handle the messaging with the directors.”

We were clearly facing an unknown-unknown. I already had suspicions that something was wrong, because their technology worked in a way I’d never seen before. And earlier, when I had taunted the team that I didn’t understand what they were doing, they blamed my ignorance. Well, they were the experts, not me. So I kept questioning, and watched and waited.

That particular episode eventually came to a happy end. We spent a month looking at options. We ended up replacing the broken technology with a completely different solution that was massively more useful and ultimately cost the same. (And that was what got me thinking that unknowns could be opportunities as well as threats.)

What puzzled me afterwards was the question of how to avoid these big surprises. I spent time dwelling on the Donald Rumsfeld quote about known-knowns, known-unknowns, and unknown-unknowns.

Over the years that followed I watched different “surprises” occurring in different companies and in different people’s projects. Some managers avoided pointing fingers, and got on with the consequences. There were some who insisted the surprise happened because people had not been working to the rules – as if rules were the answer to the world’s randomness. There were some managers who looked for a scapegoat that could be fired. But there were also a few who were actively looking for warning signals of surprises, so they could act quickly and decisively.

My new challenge is to look at attitudes to unknown unknowns, and how unknowns can be managed and even exploited. My website gets a couple of new short stories this week, and in time there will be more. There’s also a logical framework, to keep it consistent. I’ve focussed on two areas: technology projects, … and intelligence research and analysis. But it could apply elsewhere.

And since the discipline of fiction-writing is about people, the stories are about life-changing events. Because unknown unknowns can make or break people.


The Secret Devil’s Advocate” (7-page story)

Coming soon: “A matter of too many presidents” (3-page story,


The experience I describe above was predictable as a possibility. There’s a long list of assumptions that we put on some projects and programmes – things we think could happen, but it’s low probability and we’ll assume we can cope if it does happens. I’m thinking of things like the loss of key people, organisational changes, technology problems, and market changes. Sometimes we write down the assumptions, but they are so abstract that there’s nothing that can be done to manage them, and if they do occur it’s invariably different to the original wording. I’ve also worked in risk-taking environments where we skip writing the list because there were more urgent things to address.

It would have been fun to include science fiction examples of unknown unknowns
It would have been fun to include science fiction examples of unknown unknowns