The Known Unknowns Matrix

I.T. is not the only industry to have happily latched onto the the former Secretary of State’s famous phrase, “the unknown unknowns”. It’s a good phrase if you must plan or estimate anything because planning & estimating always involve risk.

But we should really consider the full matrix. There are pitfalls in at least two of the quadrants:

  Known Not Known
Knowns Things we know, and we know we know them Things we know but don’t realise we know them. Tacit knowledge that we take for granted. Becomes a problem if we are responsible, and fail, to communicate them to people who don’t know. Also a problem when we start work in a new context and do not realise that what we ‘know’ is no longer valid here, so they become unknown unknowns.
Unknowns Things we know that we don’t know. We can record the risk, and estimate a cost for investigation & discovery Things we don’t know that we don’t know. This is the quadrant most likely to shipwreck plans.

Concerning the unknown unknowns, my experience with doing novel software is that when budgeting for development you should estimate for development, plus learning time, plus developing the things you learned about, plus solving problems you didn’t know you’d have. A rule of thumb for novel systems might be, multiply your estimate by ten to cope with the unknowns. And/Or, have clear “abandon the project” criteria, even months into the project. Don’t be a dupe for the sunk-cost fallacy.

Less dramatically, my takeaway from this is to use this quadrant when listing risks and assumptions. Just having a space for the possibility of unknown knowns & unknowns can be an impetus to discuss, “risk-storm” & consult, to help your team discover the as-yet-unknowns.


I’ve just read the brief and brilliant which points out that you can’t afford too much novelty. He suggests that for any new project you should grant yourself a limit of 3 novelty chips. When you’ve spent them, you get no more.

Well, not unless you really can overshoot your budget and timescales by over 1,000%.


A slideshare by Danni Mannes on Agile Architecture pointed out to me all quadrants are worth some of our time.

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