Know your unknowns

We can’t always prepare for every event, but we can be ready to be surprised. BRENDAN LEWIS

Brendan Lewis

By Brendan Lewis

I’m currently reading The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It’s a fascinating book that discusses why the improbable seems to happen a lot more than people expect.

There is a section in the book that talks about the military, and how they talk about “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns”.

This got me thinking about the crew brief you give to your driver before you move an armoured vehicle – such as:

“Driver, your next move will be to the ridge 500m directly to your front. Follow the line of the hill down to the river crossing, then position the vehicle turret down on the right hand side of the large tree you can see on the crest. If attacked by heavy fire before you get to the crossing, reverse back to this position, anything else – keep on going. Do you understand?”

It’s the kind of briefing that is verbal, off the cuff, but still high quality. It covers:

  1. The desired outcome.
  2. The process.
  3. Actions on completion.
  4. Dealing with risks.
  5. Confirmation.

What I am interested in today is the part dealing with risk. You see when conducting military operations, you only attempt to forecast risk at the beginning of an operation. When actually conducting the work, you don’t try to forecast risk again, you simply accept that the unexpected might happen and plan to deal with it.

In this case, the “known unknown” is heavy enemy fire that may occur – the risk that you know of. However there is also the “unknown unknown”. Experience shows that stuff will regularly happen that not only that you don’t expect, but that you don’t even conceive of. You don’t waste your energy at a tactical level trying to forecast, it, just get on with the job but include “being surprised” in your plans.

Next time you give instructions to staff, try thinking about simple rules for dealing with the completely unexpected. And remember that the unexpected can also be opportunities you want to take advantage of.


Brendan Lewis is a serial technology entrepreneur having founded : Ideas Lighting, Carradale Media, Edion, Verve IT, The Churchill Club, Flinders Pacific and L2i Technology Advisory. He has set up businesses for others in Romania, Indonesia and Vietnam. Qualified in IT and Accounting, he has also spent time running an Advertising agency and as a Cavalry Officer with the Australian Army Reserve.

To read more Brendan Lewis blogs, click here.



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