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Of Biases and Blind Spots - The Known Unknowns

Posted By Michelle Crawford, Thursday, 6 April 2017
Updated: Monday, 10 April 2017

When I started writing the material for a series of talks I’m about to do, I latched onto Donald Rumsfeld’s old quote about ‘unknown unknowns’ that he delivered to a press briefing about weapons of mass destruction. You can find the full quote online, but he managed to raise the concept of knowledge having different states into the public consciousness.

Rumsfeld’s clumsy phrasing made it seem like some kind of an absurd excuse doled out to White House journalists hungry for proof of deception; but the concept became memetic, spreading through the internet and even referred to in the title of a 2013 biographical documentary—The Unknown Known.  Ironically, unknown knowns was the one state of knowledge he’d left out of his quoted explanation. Ironic, because the unknown knowns are also described in psychology terms as ‘façade’ - knowledge we have about ourselves that others don’t have.

It was when I dug deeper into the history of this quote that I found the connection to psychology. Two cognitive psychologists, Luft & Ingham, developed the Johari Window in 1955 as a tool for self-awareness. The subject describes themselves with attributes chosen from a list and then their peers choose words from the same list to describe the subject.

The responses are collated into four quadrants: attributes selected by both subject and peers are in the first quadrant as the Public Self (or known knowns); the second quadrant contains words chosen only by the subject—the Private Self (unknown knowns); and, the third has those attributes only the peers selected. This is the Blind Spot. This is where true self-awareness happens; and in a corporate setting, we can seek out that knowledge we don’t have by asking questions about the gaps we know we have. The final quadrant is where all the attributes that weren’t selected by anyone are all dumped.

After I’d followed this connection and wrote it into my presentation material, the Johari Window as a corporate knowledge tool has since come unbeckoned onto my radar on two occasions in different articles online and it also appears in the Gamestorming book that every good facilitator owns (check The Blind Side activity on pages 149-150). Confirmation bias at work! Let’s face it, confirmation bias, and a whole lot of other biases, affect our decision making at work. (Here’s a handy cheat sheet to all the biases and what they’re good for). We have blind spots, we have risks that no one has ever considered. That’s what makes a simple technique like the Johari Window so useful.

When you ask people to explore organisational knowledge in terms of those quadrants you can uncover rich opportunities for enabling flow for the known knowns, discover untapped resources and latent talents or needs, facilitate peer learning for the known unknowns, and unearth project risks you’d otherwise not planned for. Try it out before you kick off your next project.

Aprill Allen – itSMFA Board Member and Conference Director

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