What are unknown unknowns? Definition and examples

Unknown Unknowns are future outcomes, events, circumstances, or consequences that we cannot predict. We cannot plan for them either. We don’t even know when and where to search for them.

Unknown unknowns is a common term in strategic planning and project management. Project management involves planning, organizing, and managing many things, including a team to see through a project’s completion. Strategic planning is a company’s or organization’s process of defining its strategy.

The challenge of unknown unknowns lies in their inherent unpredictability, which necessitates an agile and adaptive approach in both project management and strategic planning.

Wikipedia says the following about the term:

“Known unknowns refers to ‘risks you are aware of, such as canceled flights,’ whereas unknown unknowns are risks that come from situations that are so unexpected that they would not be considered.”

Unknown unknowns – other knowns

Including unknown unknowns, four terms relate to the words ‘known’ or ‘unknown.’

  • Known knowns

This term refers to things that we are certain about, i.e., we know. For example, the US Pentagon knows how many American troops there are in the Middle East.

Unknown Unknowns
Many journalists say that when politicians use these ‘known’ terms, they are trying not to answer the question. Perhaps they also use them when they have no idea what right the answer is.
  • Known unknowns

Known unknowns refers to things we know exist, but we do not have all the information. We might not know, for example, how many of them there are.

For example, we know there are terrorists in the United States, United Kingdom, and France. However, we do not know how many there are. The number of terrorists in those countries is a known unknown.

  • Unknown unknowns

We know there are terrorists in our country (known known), but we do not know how many (known unknown).

We suspect they plan to do something in the future, such as set off a bomb or poison our water supply. However, we do not know what they will do, i.e., we have no idea. If they do something, we haven’t a clue when it will be. It is an unknown unknown. We are unaware of any terrorist plan. Put simply; we know nothing.

Unknown unknowns – Donald Rumsfeld

Donald Rumsfeld was US Secretary of Defense from 2001 to 2006. A journalist asked him a question regarding the lack of evidence linking Iraq’s government with the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups. This was his answer:

“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. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

The concept of unknown unknowns is crucial in risk management, as it underscores the importance of flexibility and resilience in strategies to mitigate unforeseen challenges.

Navigating certainties/uncertainties – terms in context

Below, there are some sentences incorporating the phrases “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns.” We hope they will help you get a better understanding of their meanings and how we can use them in context.

Known Knowns
  1. “When budgeting for the next fiscal year, we focused on the known knowns like rent and salaries, ensuring our foundational expenses were covered first.”
  2. “In the realm of cybersecurity, known knowns such as previously identified software vulnerabilities are promptly addressed through regular updates.”
  3. “The manufacturer’s recall was limited to known knowns, including specific models and production dates known to have the defect.”
  4. “Our competitive strategy leverages our known knowns, like market share and customer loyalty metrics, to strengthen our market position.”
Known Unknowns
  1. “We’ve identified several known unknowns in our market research, including potential customer reactions to the new product line.”
  2. “In preparing for the expedition, the team stocked extra supplies to account for known unknowns like weather changes and navigation challenges.”
  3. “The known unknowns of the upcoming regulatory changes have led us to adopt a more conservative investment strategy.”
  4. “Our project timeline includes buffer periods to accommodate known unknowns, such as supplier delays or technical issues.”
Unknown Unknowns
  1. “The crisis management plan includes contingencies for unknown unknowns, ensuring we remain adaptable in face of unforeseen events.”
  2. “The unpredictable nature of startup success is often attributed to unknown unknowns that emerge during the business lifecycle.”
  3. “Our research and development team is constantly innovating to stay ahead of unknown unknowns in the rapidly changing tech landscape.”
  4. “To safeguard against unknown unknowns in the construction project, we’ve secured comprehensive insurance coverage.”

Video – What are Unknown Unknowns

This educational video, from our sister channel on YouTube – Marketing Business Network, explains what ‘Unknown Unknowns’ are using simple and easy-to-understand language and examples.