From ‘Known Knowns’ to ‘Unknown Unknowns’

A Systemic Voyage of Discovery


Combining synergetics and cybernetics into a leadership framework provides some exciting opportunities.
Our levels of knowledge are limited. Buckminster Fuller as the architect of synergetics describes synergetic thinking as dealing with the overall behaviour of systems whereas Stafford Beer (a key proponent of management cybernetics) advises that, instead of trying to specify the system in full detail, “specify it only somewhat. You then ride on the dynamics of the system in the direction that you want to go” (Beer, 1962: 69).

It is also helpful to repeat the rather unfairly derided comment of Donald Rumsfeld. In February 2002, as the then US Secretary of State for Defence, he stated at a Defence Department briefing:

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.

Although not the first to acknowledge the presence of ‘unknown unknowns’, the rationality of the comment has been as much acknowledged by academics as some of the more popular press has ridiculed it. As Logan argues, “careful examination of the statement reveals that it does make sense”(Logan, 2009: 712).

‘Risk’, ‘uncertainty’ and ‘unknown-unknowns’ are (almost) synonymous. This has been recognised in disciplines as wide-ranging as ‘data management and business continuity’ (Sheth-Voss 2014); investment (Train n.d.)
, (Spacey 2016) and project management (Kim 2012). Although the connection between unknown-unknowns and leadership is less evident, both ‘risk’ and ‘uncertainty’ are both identified as characteristics (Mackenzie 2019).

Common trends in exploring ‘unknown-unknowns’ include ensuring the right source of information, an understanding of its context and having the right management in place to process the information or issue. This is vital in framing the leadership challenges which subsequent chapters explore.

Pawson (2013) in his ‘realist manifesto’ also recognized the importance of acknowledging ‘unknown unknowns’ viewing this as part of the continuum (in research) from the steady conversion from one state to the other, from incomprehension to unfamiliarity to understanding” (Pawson, 2013: 160).

Levels of knowledge

We thus start with the ‘known knowns’ and then move progressively to identify the ‘unknown unknowns’. The illustration below highlights the different levels.


Transformational Collective Leadership framework in tackling the Unknown Unknowns

I have argued elsewhere (Brookes, 2011:176) that Collective leadership implies that leadership is the property and consequence of a community rather than the property and consequence of an individual leader, and that
it can be construed as extending across organisational boundaries as well as encompassing leadership both ‘with’ and ‘without’ authority. In this context it thus denotes collectivity as a means of defining a shared purpose.

I will briefly describe the collective leadership framework in the next section but, first, I want to draw together the dimensions of the leadership challenge (from the ‘known’ to the ‘unknown’) described in this section and leadership capacity and capability also considering this from the ‘known’ to the ‘unknown’ levels of capacity and capability. This is illustrated below and aligns this with the different forms of management and (transformational) leadership described in the preceding section.

In the illustration below, you will note that I have aligned these two dimensions and suggested which elements of management and transformational leadership apply to each quadrant. For example, if both the management/leadership challenge is known along with the leadership capability/capacity, then managerial functions within the core operating model are likely to be applied. Conversely, if both challenges (leadership and capacity/capability) are unknown, then transformational leaders (“B”) will create tomorrow’s core business thorugh carefully constructed capabilities and discovery. In other words, leaders will explore what we don’t know about the unknown.

known and unknowns

Read about "Black Swan" Events


Beer, Stafford (1962) ‘Brain of the Firm: The Managerial Cybernetics of Organization’, Allen Lane.

Brookes, Stephen (2011). “Crisis, confidence and collectivity: Responding to the new public leadership challenge,” Leadership, Vol. 7, No. 2, pp. 175-195.

Chappelow, Jim (2020). ‘Black Swan’, Investopedia, Black Swans were obvious in hindsight, accessed October 2020.

Finance Train,(n.d.). “Types of Risks: The Known and The Unknowns.”

Khan, Faisal (2019). ‘9 Black Swan Events that changed the Financial World’,, accessed October 2020.

Kim, S. D (2012). ‘Characterizing unknown unknowns. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2012— North America’, PMI® Global Congress 2012, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Project Management Institute.

Logan, David C. (2009). “Known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns and the propagation of scientific enquiry,” Journal of Experimental Botany, Vol. 60, No. 3, pp. 712-714.

Mackenzie, Stuart (2019). ‘Unknown Unknowns’.

Pawson, Ray (2013). The science of evaluation : a realist manifesto. London, SAGE.

Sheth-Voss, Seema (2014). ‘”Unknown Unknowns” Can Wreak Havoc On Your Business Risk Management Plans’, Forbes.

Spacey, John (2016). ‘What is an unknown risk?’.

Taleb, N. N. 2005. Fooled by randomness : the hidden role of chance in life and in the markets, New York, Random House.

Taleb, N. N. 2007. The black swan : the impact of the highly improbable, New York, Random House.

Voss, C. 2016. Never split the difference : negotiating as if your life depended on it, New York, HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Does a ‘Black Swan’ exist?


A ‘Black Swan’ is “an unpredictable event that is beyond what is normally expected of a situation and has potentially severe consequences” (Chappelow, 2020).

Black Swan

The black swan was popularised by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Taleb, 2005, Taleb, 2007). Black swan events(BSE) occur very rarely but, when they do, the impact is extremely serious and widespread. The reality is that they cannot be predicted although many argue that – with hindsight – it could have been foreseen. It is particularly evident in the financial sector, with the financials crash of 2008 now being cited as an archetypal BSE.

The use of the term ‘black swan’ was first coined by a former Wall Street trader and finance professor, Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Published just before the 2008 financial crash, Taleb argued that – as they are rare but have extreme consequences –we should always assume that BSEs are possible and should be planned for (Taleb 2007). This can be achieved through contingency planning. Examples tend to be focused in the financial sector; for some of these examples read this article in relation to 9 BSE that that changed the Financial World, the most recent of which includes BREXIT (Khan 2019).

Black Swan theory thus suggests that things happen “that were previously thought to have been impossible – or never thought of at all” Voss (2016: 215). Although attributed to Taleb, Voss tells us that it’s origins pre-date the 17th century because no one had ever seen a black swan until a Dutch explorer saw one in Australia in 1697. Patterns (or markers) are often there, but we don’t look for them. As well as the financial crisis, Voss also refers to the rise of the internet (thought impossible only a few years before) and 9/11, but the impssible happens! Continuing with Voss – an internationally acclaimed negotiation expert, he adopts the term as a means of identifying the ‘unknown unknowns’. Voss tells us that its not human nature to embrace the unknown; it scares us. (2016:232). This is crucial for negotiation, especially in terms of reducing information asymmetry, and the reference at the beginning of this section which draws on the ‘known knowns’ thorugh to the ‘unknown unknowns’ applies to negotiation just as much as leadership. As Voss tells us in relation to negotiation; unknown unknowns are black swans.

In the final section of this online chapter I will align the unknown unknowns (the leadership challenge) and the level of capacity and capability in dealing with this challenge, to the third dimension of leadership3, which is leadership style, ranging from individual, through distributed and ultimately to shared. The philosophy for this is that the more we distirbute and share leadership, the greater is the opportunity to identify the ‘black swans’ of both the leadership challenge and the known and unknown skills and capabilities in building capacity to respond to these.

You can navigate through the pages for this section by using these page links

Hover over each of the links to see which page it links to

The Selfless Leader