Knowns and Unknowns

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Developed by Dionysios Maroulis



This article argues about the categorization of Knowns and Unknowns.The categorization had been used since the Greek era and in many different areas of knowledge. The frameworks that will be described in this article are powerful tools to surface what we know and do not know about a problem. The first framework that will be introduced and explained is the: Knowns and Unknowns matrix that is a powerful tool for the classification of knowledge and risks, and the second one is the: The Johari window technique that improves self-awareness by providing the user with different perspectives in relation to context.

One of the most recent and well known references about this topic was from Donald Henry Rumsfeld. In response to a query about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said these statements at a press conference in 2002.Even though he did not come up with the concept, it became his most famous line. "Known and Unknown" is the title of his book, and director Errol Morris made a documentary about him called "Unknown Known."[1] . Rumsfeld stated:

" Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, 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. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones "
Some could say that Socrates was referring to this knowledge when he first said I only know that I do not know anything. However, Ibn Yami, in the thirteenth century was the first that used these methods to categorize humas beings accordingly to their knowledge: [2]
"One who knows and knows that he knows… his horse of wisdom will reach the skies. One who knows, but doesn’t know that he knows… he is fast asleep, so you should wake him up! One who doesn’t know, but knows that he doesn’t know… his limping mule will eventually get him home. One who doesn’t know and doesn’t know that he doesn’t know… he will be eternally lost in his hopeless oblivion!"

The relation with Project Management

All project management teams can benefit from the Knowns and Unknows matrix. During the planning phase it is really important for the team to identify and examine all possible risks and design solutions. All these risks can be identified if the knowledge and the information available to the team is managed correctly.

Furthermore, the Johari window can benefit both the individual team member and the project team in total. Building the cohesion of the team by providing transparency and improving the relationships within the members is vital for the functionality and the longevity of the team. Simultaneously, each member is evolving, increasing his self-awareness and becoming more comfortable with his working environment resulting into higher productivity.

Knowns and Unknowns matrix

Figure 1.[1]: Knowledge tree

Known Knowns

Thinking from the perspective of knowledge, Known Knowns are facts. They are assumptions that have been validated. These facts can be static, such as that time is irreversible, but it can also be knowledge about components of a problem that change over time, for example the price or lead time for a specific component.

When it comes to risk management, known knowns are the easiest form of risk. One known indicates that the organization (company, project team) is aware of the risk. The risk may be monitored and its effects quantified, which is the other well-known aspect. The risk of not delivering the project on time is a risk that everyone knows. That time that the project may be delayed can be estimated using different techniques. These risks are the easiest to handle because the likelihood of their occurrence as well as their consequences are understood. Mathematical models can be created to assist in making decisions that reduce the likelihood and impact of such hazards. Technology, such as business process workflows, can help to automate some of these risks, allowing them to be better mitigated and even avoided. You get more information through working with them.

Lateral thinking tools, such as analogies, enable you to perceive those knowns in a new perspective, allowing you to build a parallel world to the one you know. The idea is to deviate from convention, to produce something useful and unique from something (facts) that is likely not valuable since it is already being exploited.

Figure 2 [2]: Knowns and Unknowns Matrix

Known Unknowns

Knowledge base, Known Unknowns are assumptions that we have not or cannot validate.

  • Assumptions that can become known knowns now if they are validated
  • Assumptions that can become known knowns at some point in the future, but not now
  • Assumptions that can’t become known knowns because we can’t control them.

A good example of the last category of known unknowns is the flux int the price of fuel or the price of the stocks. Also, for a construction project the estimated weather delays are classified as known unknown knowledge. Known unknowns are risks that an organization is aware of but does not know the extent or impact of. It's difficult, but not impossible, to plan for and perceive hazards.

To handle known unknown risks, organizations must have a strategy for the most likely outcomes and be prepared to switch to the correct course of action once enough evidence is gathered to convert known unknowns to known knowns. Having access to specific rules and regulations on a given issue, for example, may help you evaluate the degree of risk you're taking and prepare for how much risk you'll need to run your organization-project team efficiently. Dealing with them requires making hypotheses with the Known Unknowns.

In the context of Design Thinking or User-Centered Design, this generally translates to making rapid sketches or diagrams with potential solutions, which you must then pass through the team's sieve and test with users. However, these are merely concepts based on prior information. We must make certain that we express them as hypotheses rather than facts.

Figure 3 [3]: Design thinking techniques

Unknown knowns

Unknown knowns are assumptions that might have been identified as known knowns during the planning process but were not and are now having an impact on the project. Poor communication is the most common cause of unknown knowns. A project manager is aware that a certain township only considers permission applications once a month but refuses to provide this information (or is not asked). The next project manager that works with this township has the same problem.

Thinking about risks in this category they rise because of the carelessness of an organization. These risks are rarely included in the risk management framework of an organization. This is because such risks should not exist in a well-managed risk department. However, even the finest organizations in the world are not immune to these dangers. The subprime mortgage crisis, as well as the ensuing financial catastrophe, bear witness to this.

You need to get individuals to voice their views out without too much deliberation if you want to uncover Unknown Knowns. This is met by brainstorming. The presence of a group is critical because whatever a person says might serve as a catalyst for others to bring up similar information. Also, some people will dismiss some issues because they don't fit their agenda or for other reasons, but others in the group will almost certainly address them. Unknown Knowns can also be discovered through group sketching and other forms of quick collaborative cooperation.

Unknown Unknowns

The Unknown Unknowns are true surprises also called Black swans . In this category there are no assumptions and no knowledge. Things we are neither aware of nor understand are part of this category.

These are the most hazardous dangers that an organization can face. One unknown represents the fact that the stakeholders are completely unaware of the threat. The other unknown is self-evident. This is because the organization is completely unaware of the threat. As a result, the issue of assessing and quantifying risk isn't truly raised. These hazards often have a large impact and put the organization's existence in jeopardy. Extreme weather occurrences are one example of such dangers. Another prominent illustration of this danger is the worldwide coronavirus pandemic.

You must approach a subject with an open mind in order to uncover the Unknown Unknowns. Interviews, which are frequently undertaken at the early stages of a project in user research and design study, might reveal these unknowns. In a recent project, for example, we observed that certain users were developing inventive processes using other technologies to handle their very specific difficulties. That's the type of insight that propels you forward in your knowledge of challenges and the creation of solutions.[3] [4] [5] [6][7] [8] [9]

The Johari window


Moving on the next framework that provides an understanding and a methodology for Knowns and Unknowns. The Johari window model is a simple and useful tool for illustrating and improving self-awareness, and mutual understanding between individuals within a group. This model can also be used to assess and improve a group's relationship with other groups. This model is particularly useful in team development [10]. It deals with the thinks that someone knowns or does not known comparing with the things that the rest of the group knows or doesn’t know. It also presents steps in order to jump for on category of the matrix to another one.

It was developed in 1955 by American psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham at the University of California, Los Angeles, while exploring group dynamics. In 1955, the UCLA Extension Office published the concept in the Proceedings of the Western Training Laboratory in Group Development, which was later extended by Joseph Luft. Because of the present emphasis on, and effect of,'soft' skills, behavior, empathy, collaboration, inter-group growth, and interpersonal development, the Johari Window paradigm is especially important today. The name Johari comes from the two authors, how decided to name this model after them self (JOseph and HARrIngton).

Figure 4 [4]: The Johari Window

The four quadrants of Johari Window

The Johari window consists of four quadrants: 1) Open/Free area or Arena, 2) Hidden area or Façade, 3) Blind area or Blind spot, 4) Unknown area or Unknown. Those four quadrants are categorized, as illustrated at Figure 4, into a matrix system with two viewpoints: self and others, and the two elements: known and unknown. Looking at the matrix someone gets the idea that all the quadrants are of the same size; this is not true because through communication the size of each quadrant can fluctuate.

Open/free area or Arena

At this part of the matrix, both oneself and others are aware of information. Having a big pool of data known by everyone increase the productivity and facilitates the operation between individuals and teams. Basic information that are contained in this quadrant are feelings, emotions, experience, knowledge that is known by each individual group member. Furthermore, when this area is well developed mistrust and miscommunication or conflicts are rarely been noticed. At his book, Loft refers to this quadrant as the are of free activity. Individual should always look to expand this area in order to contribute to teams effectiveness and healthy operation [11].

The Open area can be expanded by feedback solicitation or by self-disclosure; meaning exposing some information about yourself. As said, it is important for a team’s functionality its’ members to endeavor for the expansion of the Open area and the contraction of the rest.

Hidden area or Façade

This section has information, knowledge, skills, emotions, learning that an individual project team member has not yet shared with the rest of team. This happened either from luck of communication or from a personal choice to keep certain information secret from everyone else. Hidden information could be also trauma or fears. It's extremely personal and private information and sentiments to be kept private; in fact, certain knowledge, feelings, and experiences have no influence on work and may and should be kept private. However, most secret information isn't really personal; instead, it's work- or performance-related, and so belongs in the open[12]. Possible questions to retrieve some information:

  • ” I see a Disability Assist Statement has just been added to your record card. Is there any support you might need?”
  • ” Are there assessment types that are easier or harder for you?”
  • You have done exceptionally well in modules relating to (Finance)—do you have a background in this?” [13]

In order for an individual to create a positive and productive working environment he needs to share some private information with his team. This information can be about facts that his colleagues are ignorant about, however, information not related to work can also be helpful as they increase the trust, the familiarity resulting to a better cohesion. “Telling” and sharing your knowns can be the start of rich conversations consequently contracting the quadrant of “Hidden area or Façade” and expanding the “Open/free area or Arena”.

Blind area or Blind spot

Loft refers to it as the quadrant "where others can see things in ourselves of which we are unaware" [11]. This part of the matrix contains all the information that are unknown to oneself but known to the rest of the group. An example that this quadrant can represent is when an individual just joined an already established project team. In this situation the member has not yet meet and interact with his colleagues but at the same time has not work on the different projects that the team was assigned, so he lacks of some vital information. Situations that belong in this quadrant are governed from ineffectiveness and misunderstandings and confusion. The individuals and teams should always focus to make this area smaller as soon as possible either by providing data to new members or putting efforts for a greater communication.

It is difficult for someone to know his/her blind spot; ignorance and self-confidence might result as a barrier. Another impediment for the exploration in this area might be the politeness which may be part of the culture of the team which subsequently disrupts constructive and challenging conversations. It is important, especially at the early stages where all team members’ relations are new, to have the courage and be comfortable talking and analyzing possible blind spots of your teammates. At the same time being open-minded and proactive on feedback solicitation will definitely develop someone’s knowledge area and increase his/her awareness. Feedback solicitation is the mean to decrease the “Blind area or Blind spot” and increase the “Open/free area or Arena”

Unknown area or Unknown

Luft states for this quadrant that "Neither the individual nor others are aware of certain behaviors or motives. Yet we can assume their existence because eventually some of these things become known, and it then realized that there are unknown behaviors and motives were influencing relationships all along" [11]. By definition, this section contains information about the individual that is unknown. They might be both positive and bad possibilities. It's helpful to conceive of them as characteristics and competencies that have yet to be identified in the context of tutoring. New experiences and opportunities may lead to the revelation of previously unknown talents and abilities. As this area contains all the information that the individuals or the project team in total, do not know that exist an emotion of fear and uncertainty can be created but both should deal with ambiguity as a chance where innovation and novel ideas can be created as well as talents and competences to be revealed.

It is also possible to disclose information from in the Unknown Area. Luft argued that the Unknown Area could be explored in multiple ways[11]:

  • "Intentionally doing things you have not done before"
  • "Continuously exploring both the Blind and Hidden areas"
  • "Using untapped resources/skills/talent you have"
  • "Exploring your dreams"
  • "Paying attention to what stimulates you"
  • "Unnumbing yourself"

It is inevitable for new events and information, to be speculated, that a better examination of past data could provide a better understanding and so the unknowns could have been identified earlier. Actively engaging with the rest of quadrants can be helpful also in this area of the Johari window. Team managers play a vital roll in this area as good leadership and establishing an environment where the team feels safe to explore and discuss will facilitate constructive discussions and workshops. It is also important, for the feedback-giver and feedback-receiver to feel heard and validated so that the process ,being healthy and safe, will continue.


Subjects are given a list of 55 descriptors and are asked to choose five or six that best characterize their own personality. The subject's peers are given the same list and are asked to choose five or six adjectives that best characterize the topic. After that, the adjectives are mapped onto a grid. [14]

For The Open area or Arena both subjects and their peers pick adjectives and place them in the "Open area" quadrant. For the Hidden or Façade the adjectives are selected only by the participants. These information represent traits that only the participants know about themselves. Consecutively, at the Blind Spot quadrant only the peers choose adjectives that characterize what the subjects are unaware of but also express how they subjects' behavior is perceived from the rest of the team. The remaining adjectives that are not selected represent the participants' behavior that were not recognized neither from themselves nor their peers. This might be because of their lack of knowledge in some aspects of their work or because of their ignorance of the existence of these traits.

The participant can use adjectives like these as possible descriptions in the Johari window.

  • able
  • accepting
  • adaptable
  • bold
  • brave
  • calm
  • caring
  • cheerful
  • clever
  • complex
  • confident
  • dependable
  • dignified
  • empathetic
  • energetic
  • extroverted
  • friendly
  • giving
  • happy
  • helpful
  • idealistic
  • independent
  • ingenious
  • intelligent
  • introverted
  • kind
  • knowledgeable
  • logical
  • loving
  • mature
  • modest
  • nervous
  • observant
  • organized
  • patient
  • powerful
  • proud
  • quiet
  • reflective
  • relaxed
  • religious
  • responsive
  • searching
  • self-assertive
  • self-conscious
  • sensible
  • sentimental
  • shy
  • silly
  • smart
  • spontaneous
  • sympathetic
  • tense
  • trustworthy
  • warm
  • wise
  • witty


As argued in this article, the knowledge and the information that an individual or a project team receives can be categorized in four different quadrants and illustrated as the Knowns and Unknowns matrix.

Known Knowns are facts. They are the easiest to be validated and have a small risk for the project since are known and easy to identify.

Known Unknowns are assumptions that have not been vilified. The risk is high as the project team needs to find ways to explore, providing transparency and discovering the outcome.

Unknown knows are assumptions that the results are obvious but the reason is not. For a project team is often to identify the risk that delivers an impact to their plan but they fall short identifying it at the start because of the complexity of the received information.

Unknown unknowns are surprised. The project team never realized or took them under consideration as had no clue about their existence.

Moreover, The Johari window is a tool that can be used from a project team or an individual member and improves self-awareness by providing the user with different perspectives in relation to context. The four quadrants: “Open/free area or Arena”, “Hidden area or Façade”, “Blind area or Blind spot”, “Unknown area or Unknown”, categorize information and knowledge that an individual or a project team have and describe ways on how to minimize or maximize some of these areas resulting into better team cohesion, self-awareness and connectivity.


When the project team or an individual act as receiver or sender of an information it is of the most importance to be accurate and open-minded. Try to understand and examine the information in all of their aspects through a multifarious analysis.

Considering the different categories that were analyzed in this article, it is reasonable to argue that some of the quadrants such as the “Unknown Unknowns” or the “Unknown area” need a lot of innovation, patience and resilience in order to be productive in these areas.

From a risk management perspective, a team that spends a lot of effort in identifying and categorizing as much as knowledge they can will be effective but ignoring this process can lead to huge drawbacks during the execution or the operation of the project.

Lastly, an individual or a project team must drive to expand the “Open/free area or Arena”. Neglecting, underestimating or showing small effort for this area and its’ expansion will have as result the underfunction of every member of a project team.

Annotated bibliography

1. Known and Unknown: A Memoir, by Rumsfeld, D. -A powerful memoir from the late former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld addresses the challenges and controversies of his illustrious career, from the unseating of the entrenched House Republican leader in 1965, to helping the Ford administration steer the country away from Watergate and Vietnam, to the war in Iraq, to confronting abuse at Abu Ghraib. He also makes a first approach on the infromation categorization as Known or Unknown.

2. Of human interaction by Luft, J. , -The author, professor of psychology at San Francisco State College, starts with the assumption that human behavior is best understood in the context of ties between persons. He uses as elegant model of awareness - the Johari Window - to describe communication processes and to recognize the enigmatic nature of human interaction, the inevitability of certain unawareness, and the nature of change. Among the many topics he discusses are nonverbal interaction, influence and interaction values, entrapment and misery, the power and risk of disclosure, and the experience of feeling understood.

3. The Johari window and self-development, by Tajin T., -This article make an extensive analysis on the Johari window and its results. It describes the use of the tool as well as analyze the quadrants and provide instructions and suggestions on how the tool can be used to improve as the individual or the team in general.


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