Not-knowing: An investigation

tl;dr: To make good strategic decisions, we need more sophisticated ways of understanding uncertainty. This research project introduces a new conceptual framework for understanding different types of uncertainty (types of not-knowing) — and develops a practical toolkit for relating well to not-knowing.

I’m working on a new research project on not-knowing and what we can do about it. Some of my work in progress is linked below, but you can read everything here. In 2023, I ran a 14-episode monthly discussion series about not-knowing which were joined by people in government, the military, technology, art, foresight, and many other domains — the ideas in the essays linked below owe much to those conversations.

Why we really need to talk about not-knowing.

The starting point for this research is the (new) concept of different types of not-knowing” — each represents a different source of uncertainty that is not quantifiable risk.

Why is this important?

Because anything that is fully knowable and fully known becomes routine and doable by machines. Understanding not-knowing is thus how we understand being human — this is essential with the sudden rise of artificial intelligence tools. Relating well to not-knowing also enables more innovation and is a path to being happier.

We also have no choice. Every day we confront situations of not-knowing in which we must still do something. The most important human work is navigating not-knowing. This is why we reward leaders who lead through unpredictable situations, why we respect founders who choose to work with not-yet-understood technology and markets, and why we esteem researchers who push beyond the known.

The last few years (global pandemic, crazy weather, geopolitical insecurity, rapid technological change, economic upheaval, etc) show that these situations of not-knowing are growing in number, scope, and impact.

Yet even those who are charged professionally with navigating these diverse situations of not-knowing often fuck it up. Most recently, the rapid ascent and even faster implosion of Effective Altruism, FTX, and Alameda Research is an object lesson in how poorly not-knowing is understood even by those nominally in the business of managing it — philosophers, venture capitalists, finance industry professionals, and financial journalists. To say nothing of politicians and policymakers.

Emotional hurdles to confronting not-knowing.

Even professionals are confused by not-knowing because there are many obstacles in the way of understanding. First, we rarely recognise that not-knowing of any kind is emotionally distressing, which prevents clear thinking about it. And even when we get over that emotional hurdle, there is a huge amount of confusion and muddled thinking still in the way.

Why not-knowing” instead of uncertainty”?

Because even the word uncertainty” creates confusion and is the cause of muddled thinking. Risk and uncertainty are conceptually mixed up (as part 1, part 2, and part 3 of this series of articles explains), and the words risk” and uncertainty” are also used in misleading ways that add to the confusion.

Four types of not-knowing.

After cutting through the confusion, what remains is clarity about four key types of not-knowing:

  1. Not-knowing about actions,
  2. Not-knowing about outcomes,
  3. Causal not-knowing, and
  4. Not-knowing about relative value.

A mindset and toolkit for not-knowing.

This clarity reveals how relating well to not-knowing requires a mindset that recognises different types of not-knowing and has access to the appropriate tools for decision-making when faced with each type of not-knowing.

My first book was about uncertainty and how organizations can use uncertainty strategically, as a design principle. You can find out more about The Uncertainty Mindset here.