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Steve Hoy

Known Knowns

The nature of knowledge and ignorance is a serious philosophical problem; for decision-makers, it is a gnarly practical one too. Making important decisions in the face of uncertainty is unsettling and difficult. Few are up to the task.

“…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.” Donald Rumsfeld

In 2003 The Plain English Campaign gave Mr Rumsfeld its annual Foot in Mouth award for this. However, far from being an incoherent jumble of words, it is a complex, almost Kantian thought.

I would add to this the unknown knowns - things we don't know we know. Often in an organisation, large or small, many things are known by individuals or groups but the communication channels do not exist to surface the information and make it known to the institution. The US had all the information needed to detect the World Trade Center attacks before they happened in 2001, but the information was distributed. Even if the channels exist to allow information to move to the ‘corporate’ understanding, there are few effective filters to determine what might be relevant to any given scenario.

It’s good to see a senior politician, even one who divided opinion as Donald Rumsfeld did, think and speak publicly about the nature of knowledge. Politicians often need to appear to be “Men of Action”, doing things, making changes, rather than talking about what they cannot know. It’s their tragedy that we, the populace, require this of them because we need certainty. In business too, we defer to those who are the most certain, even if we should know better.

The “Man of Action”

There is a continuum, I think, from those who busy themselves only with ethereal concerns such as religious thinkers or philosophers, through the “Men of Action”, to those too idle or stupid to think at all. I should say that many of those who ‘do not think’ actually do, but are unconcerned about the matter at hand - they show up to work, do their thing, and find their love at home. They do not care very much about the company, except when it lays off a ton of people (or goes bust) when the senior management in their firm screw up. Also spare a thought for the smart person with their face pressed to the greasy pole of corporate or political advancement: they may be smart, high-achieving people who have hobbies and are good parents (otherwise normal people), but they are professionally required to be a “Man of Action” at work.

The “Man of Action” is in quotes because it is a gendered phrase used here to denote those people, men and women, for whom the need to act precludes humility or introspection. It plagues men more than women, I believe. You’ll find them everywhere in Management.

Sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought

Uncertainty is anathema to the “Man of Action”. They cannot cope with it, for it prevents them from Acting. They would be required to confront the limits of their knowledge and start to reason in the presence of uncertainty, and even if they’re capable of it they know the people who pay them and those they manage, are looking to them for ‘Leadership’ and if they fail to provide it others will take their place.

So it is rare to find a corporate or political ‘leader’ sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought. Most are not capable of it. It's just not in them to be reflective and introspective in an intellectual sense. They have no interest in why things are the way they are. Rather, they spend their energies on understanding how they can take advantage of the way things are. This suceeds in defined areas such as banking, but fails badly in start-ups.

In a start-up the business is trying to find a successful product and so start-ups require a lot of thinking and listening, not skills a “Man of Action” is renowned for. I argue that in Business generally, there’s just not enough thinking and listening, no matter how much companies talk about it.


Any decision in the presence of uncertainty is, well, uncertain. Understanding that there’s a lot which is not known and is possibly unknowable is key to navigating uncertainty. It is this understanding that eludes the “Man of Action”. The skills of introspection and reflection are necessary to processing uncertainty and are not highly regarded in business, but they are needed when creating a strategy.