Say goodbye to the era of defining career growth as climbing a stable corporate ladder.
According to a recent LinkedIn survey, Millennials are twice as likely to switch jobs vs Gen X in the first 5 years after graduating college. And alongside major shifts in technology and business practices is growing perceived danger in the workforce. 77% of Americans in a Monster survey said they believed there’s a threat to their current job including new management, toxic boss or work environments, and new skills being demanded in the industry.
So how does one navigate their career in a world hurtling towards uncertainty and complexity?
Plenty of resources are available for helping you pick a linear career path. But if the above trends are a crystal ball into the future, you’re bound to have multiple career transitions through your life (potentially into risky, unknown territory!) which requires a whole new set of decision-making tools for your career.
You may have heard of a few frameworks that have gained popularity in the media: costs vs benefits, Buffett’s Circle of Competence, Bezos’ Regret Minimization Framework, and the Eisenhower Box —just to name a few examples.
The framework I’m going to share with you today has been used by NASA mission planners, psychologists, and military officials and has roots in ancient Greek and Buddhist philosophy. It’s one typically used for organizational strategy and project management, but it’s also helped me and others make better career and life decisions.
This tool is called the Knowns and Unknowns framework.
NASA at one point used Knowns and Unknowns to evaluate new space missions. In a 2003 presentation, we can see how NASA employed the tool to assess the risks of a Space Shuttle return flight. Their goal was to de-risk their project by shifting more risks from the unknown into the known territory. One year earlier, Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defense at the time, even made a quip that brought the little-known framework into the public limelight during a press conference about the decision to invade Iraq:
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.
Knowns and Unknowns, at its core, is a problem-solving tool for complex situations. And what else is navigating one’s career these days other than the sum of many complex decisions?
In my career so far—like many Millennials—I’ve already made numerous transitions such as switching jobs, expanding my responsibilities, and making major lifestyle choices. Knowns and Unknowns has been a trusted companion at each of these transition points. Don’t leave home without it.
What is the Knowns and Unknowns Framework?
Knowns and Unknowns is a knowledge matrix that helps you surface what you know and don’t know about a problem. Its power comes from how it incorporates assumptions about risk and uncertainty.
Using the tool, you separate what you know into four quadrants:
Each of these quadrants is associated with a unique understanding and awareness of the risk in your situation:
- Known knowns: Things you’re aware of and understand (example: repeating the same tasks over-and-over at a stable corporate job)
- Known unknowns: Things you’re aware of but don’t understand (examples: switching from doing business to making art, jumping from public corporation to fast-growing venture)
- Unknown knowns: Things you’re not aware of but understand (example: encountering gender bias during the hiring process)
- Unknown unknowns: Things you’re neither aware of nor understand (examples: starting a business or taking a sabbatical)
By identifying what is known and unknown in your situation, you’ll have more information at your disposal on how to take smarter action.
Where Did the Framework Come From? (How Socrates and Modern-Day Psychologists Went Down the Same Rabbit Hole)
If we trace the general approach of categorizing knowledge into knowns and unknowns throughout history, we could go all the way back to Socrates.
The Athenian famously stated, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
Buddha taught a similar lesson, “A fool who knows his foolishness is wise at least to that extent, but a fool who thinks himself wise is a fool indeed.”
My interpretation of both these philosophers’ quotes is that wisdom comes from an awareness of your gaps in knowledge, or your unknowns.
The earliest record of directly using this method, however, is 13th-century Islamic philosopher Ibn Yami, who described it in a short verse:
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!
Yami’s point was that acquiring knowledge is as important as what we already know.
In the 1950’s, psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham invented a similar technique, the Johari Window, which was used to help people evaluate with they think about themselves in contrast to how others view them.
Blind Spots, for example, are adjectives that others would use to describe you but you may not be aware of yourself.
It’s fascinating to see the framework pop-up over-and-over in disparate disciplines.
How Do You Use the Framework? (And Get Everything You Can From It)
Fortunately for us, Knowns and Unknowns is a highly actionable tool. In this section, we’ll first walk through an easy-to-follow process for using the framework. Then we’ll discuss a few examples that bring these ideas to life.
To get started, use this simple 4-step process when you’re evaluating a career decision:
- Identify the quadrant you’re in given what you known and don’t know about the problem. Assess your awareness and understanding of the risks you face up ahead. What do you already know as fact (known knowns)? Do you have an assumption(s) about your career that can be tested (known unknowns)? Are there biases or unconscious decisions at work (unknown knowns)? What possible options are you not exploring (unknown unknowns)?
- Choose a strategy based on the nature of your starting quadrant. If you’re starting with a more known problem (Known Knowns and Known Unknowns), then take an analytical, investigatory approach to the problem. How do you test out your career assumptions? How do you use the facts to build towards new learnings at work? If you’re starting with a more unknown situation (Unknown Knowns and Unknown Unknowns), then use a more exploratory and/or creative approach. How might you surface some of these unknowns? How might you prepare for pleasant or rude surprises down the road?
- Adjust expectations to amplify your satisfaction with the results. I’m a firm believer that possessing the right mentality and expectations are the keys to happiness regarding career choices. For example, one common mistake I see amongst job searchers I speak with is viewing every brand-name job offer through a rose-tinted lens. They’ll say something to the effect of, “If I only get Facebook/Google/Netflix/[insert sexy brand-name] company on my resume, then I’ll be taken more seriously by future employers.” The reality is yes the brand-name helps, but they’re going to be disappointed when they discover that future employers will rarely move candidates past the phone screen if they’re not also showing how they’re taking on new responsibilities and challenges in their role. Challenge your initial starry-eyed assumptions. Set the right expectations.
- Make the decision, and fully commit. Don’t dilly-dally nor go back and put the call you made into question. Honor the work you put in to get here. Trust your judgment.
Now let’s review a few practical examples from my coaching practice and hypothetical scenarios.
Known Knowns (Facts)
If you start here, you understand the problem at hand, its context, the underlying principles at work, and feel confident in the consequences of your decision. You have been through this decision hundreds if not thousands of times.
What this may look like career-wise is you have a few years of experience in a domain under your belt, are known as a subject matter expert by your peers, and are evaluating how to turn your hard-earned knowledge into new career opportunities.
Leverage Your Knowledge to Learn New Skills
If you have built a solid foundation of knowledge in one skill, you can use it as leverage to shift into newer, adjacent domains.
One of my clients, let’s call him David, was a reliability engineer at an automotive startup. After a re-org that impacted his role, he looked for new internal opportunities and received offers from two different teams. One offer was from a different reliability team, where he was confident that his responsibilities would remain the same on his current team.
The other offer was for a newly formed test engineering team, which was riskier but would teach David relevant skills that he was hungry to pick up. David took the latter offer, capitalizing on his existing contributions to the company and converting them into an opportunity to learn about a brand new, adjacent skillset.
Last time I checked with him, he was feeling happy and fulfilled on his new team.
Start with what you already know and expand outward into lateral areas of knowledge and skills.
Double Down on an Area of Expertise
Sometimes you’re confident that you have the potential to thrive in a skill(s) based on your previous performance and enjoy the work. Then it makes sense to double down and build deeper expertise.
When I left my 120-person online education startup to join Dropbox’s growth team, I had been learning a product optimization skillset for two years. I knew that I felt happy doing these responsibilities and wanted to build up my seniority by working at a well-resourced company that would invest in my learning in this particular sub-field. After 3.5 years of working at Dropbox, I gained valuable depth and a portfolio of experiences.
Take what you already know and build on top of it to develop expertise.
Known Unknowns (Question)
Here you haven’t attended this rodeo before but you have an informed opinion on what’ll happen as a consequence. Perhaps you’re trying to break into a new field or industry, gain management experience, or work for a company at a different stage of its lifecycle than your current employer.
What you want to do next is ask some juicy questions.
Seek an Insider Perspective
Take your questions about a prospective opportunity and ask someone for their advice who has walked this path before.
If you’re applying to a position at a new company, set up an informational interview or coffee chat with a current or former of that team. By learning from their experience, you’ll often unearth golden nuggets of insight about the team and company that no one else has access to.
Considering a total career make-over? Great. Reach out to your network—including your 2nd and 3rd degree connections—that work in your desired field.
Recently my client, let’s call her Rachel, was considering a jump from investor relations in the world of finance to the software industry. With the wide breadth of roles available, she felt confused and intimidated. It wasn’t until she chatted with actual professionals in the industry, including me, that she cut through her mental fog and formed a clearer picture in her head of where she fit. Ultimately she decided to pursue a new role in finance, but knowing the specific roles in software that she was comparing against helped her accelerate the decision-making process.
Once you have questions, talk to someone more seasoned in doing what you want to do. What’s unknown to you is likely known to others.
Run an Experiment
Another way to answer your question is by putting your career hypotheses to the test. This strategy works especially well if you can do a low-cost experiment to assess whether or not it makes sense to commit more resources behind a decision.
Let’s pretend that you’re interested in transitioning from software engineering to marketing. Don’t put all your eggs in this new basket until you know you like it and can deliver great work. If you start applying to marketing job postings left and right, firstly you’re going to have a tough time getting through interviews without prior marketing experience. Or worse, you receive the offer and then get stuck doing work you hate.
Start with a small marketing project instead. Volunteer to help a non-profit with market research and positioning, freelance paid ads for a startup, or ask to help your co-worker with a product launch. Validate that you enjoy the work and can excel at it before you sink in more time, effort, and money.
Unknown Knowns (Intuition)
There may be biases at play in your situation that you’re not currently aware of — but they’re obvious once they’re apparent to you. You may be in a fast-growing startup with a constantly shifting culture or a corporation that recently introduced new top management.
How do you promptly surface these biases so they don’t cause you disappointment and frustration in the future?
Ask Yourself, “What Was True About Last Month That’s Not True This Month?”
You can be certain that the needs of a rapidly changing business never stay the same. What was celebrated and rewarded last month or quarter could very well be what’s holding back the business this month or quarter. And if you’re caught blind-sided by these shifts in the landscape, you could end up in a world of hurt and resentment.
A common grievance I noticed amongst my colleagues at Dropbox (and friends at other high-growth startups) was that they had sunk their prime years into building the company, only to watch executives recruit outside talent to come in and become my colleagues’ managers. They felt hoodwinked for all their loyalty and dedicated efforts.
In startup land, one hears this complaint all the time from hardworking junior employees: “Ugh I can’t believe they hired X above me! Look at how hard I work. Why am I always getting passed for promotion into leadership opportunities?”
One reason is that the scrappy, “get things done at any cost” mentality that leadership praised them for during the company’s high-flying startup phase wasn’t what the organization needed in the pre-IPO/public corporation phase. The latter demands new skills such as structured thinking, strategic planning, and ability to manage large swaths of stakeholders. In this new context, scrappiness goes out of fashion.
Without questioning your own intuition, it’s easy to get wrapped up in your ego-centric view of the business and not notice these broader, underlying shifts. Nothing may have changed about your physical office space, direct team, manager — or even responsibilities on-paper. But below the surface, everything has changed.
Take a moment to reflect. Question the biases at play in your own view of the world, adjust your expectations, and learn how to adapt to the new organization. This may mean up-skilling, switching roles, or even leaping to a different employer at your preferred stage of the business lifecycle.
Unknown Unknowns (Exploration)
You’re faced with a lot of uncertainty, which requires a completely different set of tools. Perhaps you’re considering opening a new business, joining an early-stage venture, or taking a sabbatical.
What I’ve observed is that high-achievers tend to have a perfectionist streak. I know, because I’m one of them. For most of their professional lives, they’ve learned to identify the game being played around them, discover its hidden rules, then architect a path forward to winning.
The downside of this approach is perfectionists struggle with an unknowing future. Their natural solutions for data-rich problems don’t translate well to data-void possibilities. Trying to apply logic and reasoning to a black hole of uncertainty tends to cause more anxiety and stress than it’s worth.
Lead With Your Values
When standing on the ledge and looking down into the unknown, trust your instincts and let your personal values guide your decision-making. They are like a steady compass when you find yourself immersed in darkness. The result is a feeling of quiet self-assurance and being grounded—that no matter what happens, you feel satisfied for having lived your truth.
When I made my personal decision to take a travel sabbatical, I had forgone a few enticing job offers on the table. In the moment, it felt like throwing caution to the wind. I remember feeling my stomach churning and being short of breath as I committed to pulling the trigger. Yet I’m grateful for listening to my values and loading up on courage. I couldn’t have planned for the amazing people I met — and the coaching business I had the opportunity to build — due to serendipity and freedom.
It’s challenging to do a logical risk calculus of the total unknown. In the absence of illuminating data, use your values as the compass.
Think of Everything That Can Go Wrong
Imagine that the decision goes horribly wrong and then write out all the possible ways this result could have happened. While you won’t be able to prepare for 100% of these scenarios, when the time comes, your conditioned muscles will spring into action more quickly.
This tool is called a “Pre-Mortem” and is used by software development teams, hedge funds, and military officials alike. It’s particularly useful in career decision-making, especially when taking a big risk such as investing your life savings into starting a new business.
One of my peers recently left her high-paid tech job to launch her own venture selling a new productivity journal. She planned her departure strategically — not rage quitting without a safety net. Before she took the leap, she assessed the ways the venture could fail, tying her timeline for leaving her job to key business milestones. And she further derisked her proposition by launching with a pre-sale instead of a standard e-commerce store to avoid potential cash flow issues.
It’s certainly more fun to imagine the ways you can achieve your wildest dreams. However, for high-risk decisions, it’s worth doing the upfront work to eliminate the potential for ugly surprises down the road.
Adapting to the ever-changing business world is stressful and challenging. Luckily, we have timeless decision-making frameworks like Knowns and Unknowns, which has been adopted by ancient philosophers to modern-day NASA mission planners.
Using this quick-and-easy tool, you’ll make faster and better decisions in a wide variety of career transitions. And it’s one that you can refer back to for the rest of your life.
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