The Knowns and Unknowns Framework for Design Thinking
On the 12th of February 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, back then Secretary of State of the US, used an until then little known framework to help him in making the case for the invasion of Iraq: the Knowns and Unknowns framework. I think it is fair to say that the reception by the press was mixed: some accused him of playing with words with little meaning, while others saw some method in what he was trying to do. Rumsfeld’s words have been turned into a poem, written by an unknown poet (very appropriately!) and included in a collection of poems all based on speeches by Donald Rumsfeld, Pieces of Intelligence, by Hart Seely (here in an edited version by Daase and Kessler): 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. What is it? The Knowns and Unknowns categorisation has been used since the Greek era and in many areas of knowledge. It is a powerful tool to surface what we know and don’t know about a problem. The apparent simplicity of the Knowns and Unknowns framework is deceiving: it can byte you and get people thinking that you are just playing with words, as happened to Rumsfeld. So you’ve been warned, be careful with it. And please don’t let it into the hands of war seekers. The framework can help us to understand our approach to knowledge, to research: What do we know already (known knowns)? Are we conscious of what we are not exploring (unknown unknowns)? What about biases and unconscious decisions (unknown knowns)? Are we aware of our assumptions (known unknowns)? The known and the unknown have to be treated in very different ways. We need to adapt our methods to the type of knowledge (including our lack of knowledge, which is also knowledge, if we are aware of it). If you are working with your unknowns (the Unknown Knowns or the Unknown Unknowns) you need to use exploratory techniques: How might we surface some of those unknowns? How might we prepare for the surprises ahead? If instead you are investigating what you already know about a problem (the Known Knowns or the Known Unknowns) you have to work in an inductive way: how might we use those facts to learn new things? How might we test our hypotheses? We will explore some ways of making sure that we take all our knowledge and lack of it into account as part of our research or Design Thinking methods. Before that, I have a few interesting stories about this framework. You could argue that Socrates was using it indirectly when he said (according to Plato) “I only know that I don’t know anything”. But the first use of the method comes much later, in the thirteenth century, » Read More
Like to keep reading?
This article first appeared on blog.marvelapp.com. If you'd like to keep reading, follow the white rabbit.