Attorneys prepare for trial by anticipating the questions from the opposing side and preparing a strategy to overcome any damage a line of questioning might cause.
In that same way, leaders attempt to mitigate problems by going through various “what if” scenarios with their team. What are the situations that can get in the way of their success, or worse, create the “knock-out punch” in the implementation of their plans, projects and tasks? Leaders approach these issues by addressing something that we refer to as, “tapping the unknown.”
Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush, referred to this in his book, The Known and the Unknowns.
He defines the known knowns as anything we have knowledge of and we know for certain. The known unknowns are “gaps in our knowledge, but they are gaps we know exist. We know for example, that we do not know the exact extent of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. If we ask the right questions, we can potentially fill those gaps in our knowledge. Eventually making it a known known. The category of unknown unknowns is the most difficult to grasp. They are gaps in our knowledge. But gaps we do not know exist. Genuine surprises tend to arise out of this category. Nineteen hijackers using commercial airliners as guided missiles to incinerate 3,000 men, women and children was perhaps the single most horrific “unknown unknown” America has experienced.”
Leaders tap into the unknowns by factoring the potential obstacles into the planning process in order to be prepared for any future event. We can never fully predict some events, such as above, but by going through this exercise of tapping the unknown, the message to the team is we can remove many of the obstacles up front. Secondly, we can be in “ready mode” by having contingency plans for the other, less controllable events. Consider a principle from William Edwards Deming, who pioneered a framework of thought and action for leaders to proportionately focus their time and attention to achieve a level of sustained success. Deming said that 65% of our time should be spent on preparation, planning and prevention (not urgent but important responsibilities). The companies that do not spend time up front on planning, preparation and prevention tend to be in a reactive mode, putting out fires and reacting to events or situations, taking us away from what we are ultimately trying to achieve.
As you prepare for 2017, don’t forget to spend time on planning, preparation and prevention. Our customized leadership processes can assist with the planning and preparation. Let us help you and your team kick off the year focused and energized to set targets and/or reach your objectives.