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The Avebury Neoliths, Donald Rumsfeld and managing strategic priorities

OK let’s get one thing clear. This is more about strategic planning and strategic priority management than it is about comparing Donald Rumsfeld with Neolithic man. Stick with me – it will be worth the 3 minutes and one click, I promise.  avebury unknown unknowns and priority managementI was visiting Avebury this week. The hot sun heated the tall sarsen stone that I rested against in the heat of the afternoon. I was taking in the enormity of the largest European Neolithic stone circle built at Avebury around 5000 years ago. I like Avebury because, unlike its near and more famous neighbour, Stonehenge, you can physically experience the site, touching the stones, clambering up and down the henge banks, and even having a pint in the village pub, built inside the stone circle. I have always found it to be a good place to stop and think for a while, as I did on this occasion.

We only know so much about Avebury and other Neolithic sites and there is much that is unknown. Indeed, you can say that when it comes to Neolithic sites like Avebury and Stonehenge there are more ‘Unknown unknowns’ than there are ‘Knowns’.

This thought took me back to a very recent illuminating conversation I had with Simon Gifford about Strategic Planning, Decision Making and Strategic Priority Management. Specifically we were talking about some of the work he does in helping business leaders make strategic decisions in the face of “unknown unknowns” and how this complements my own work in helping people manage their strategic priorities.

 “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know.
But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we do not know we don’t know.”

Donald Rumsfeld when he was United States Secretary of Defence

 The Paradox of understanding our future environment in the face of Unknown Unknowns

As simon puts it:

Most critical strategic decisions taken today are implemented in the medium to long term future – and so the environment in which the decision is implemented and played out, is usually quite different to the one in which the decision is made.

When we add the need for predicting possible futures to the challenge of our ‘unknown unknowns’, we realise the paradox with which we are faced: “How can we possibly understand our future environment if there are things we don’t even know we don’t know about?” 

Simon was explaining how plotting Probability, Impact and Defendability  (PID) on one axis against ‘Knowns’  to ‘Unknowns’ on another axis, we can build a graphical representation of what might be significant in our strategic planning scenarios.

Finally he pointed to a couple of approaches that would be useful in reducing the level of the ‘Unknowns’ which he calls ‘The Challenge Board’ and ‘Knowledge Surfacing’, which I commend to you.

Simon is MD at Genesis Management Consulting Limited. If decision making and strategic planning is important to you I strongly suggest you click on over to his blog and download his paper ‘Taking strategic decisions in the face of “unknown unknowns”

Of course, you can also ask me about our support for managing strategic priorities, project management and managing competing priorities within demanding workloads generally.

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