Nearly every bad decision shares a common flaw. Something undermined the outcome we hoped for. Worse, that something is a factor not previously known to us.
You may be familiar with the framework used by the American politician Donald Rumsfeld. There are known knowns, things that we know. There are known unknowns, things that we know we don’t know. And there are also unknown unknowns, things that we don’t know we don’t know.
By definition, no leader exists who knows all that they don’t know. Accepting this fact and acting on it is essential for reaching quality decisions. So, how does a leader overcome the gap in what they don’t know given they are blind to it?
The first step is to engage people who have prior experience with the kind of decision in front of us. Those who have laid eyes on a similar problem will often see a pattern we can learn from. The insight gleaned from experts who had boots on the ground with a similar issue will help us to uncover what we didn’t know, or even think of.
Even more important to this learning journey are the people who hold competing views about our assumptions about the problem. Add to this conversation those who believe the options we are considering will blow up in our faces. This so-called red team thinking is critical to uncover facts and issues we would never normally consider.
Every major decision needs to be stress-tested by those who believe it is foolhardy. Only then can we move forward with conviction knowing just a little bit more about what we didn’t know. The best leaders sail more comfortably into uncharted waters when they presume all waters are dangerous and uncharted.