It was Donald Rumsfeld’s phrased response to a White House question in 2002 that was to provide him with an excellent legacy and the title of a book. He distinguished between things we know we know, things we know we don’t know, and the unfathomable things that we don’t know we don’t know.

These are otherwise known – if you pardon the overused word – as the known knowns, the known unknowns and unknown unknowns.

I was tasked the other day with making sure the US version of a website was accurate, not just in terms of spelling and phrasing, but also used the correct terminology. My realisation that I had  not used the correct word for the US audience had already caused quite a bit of re-work and prompted a detailed pass through the US website to catch any further inaccuracies.

The problem was, you had to have worked extensively in that industry to know what the correct name was in the US, or whether they used the same descriptor as their UK friends.

So there were terms that I knew I knew, and the ones that I knew I didn’t know. Unfortunately, there were also bound to be terms that I didn’t know that I didn’t know, and they wouldn’t be spotted until it was too late. It’s the unknown unknowns that get you in business, as in many other things.

It’s bad enough having unknown unknowns in a fairly niche website with a few thousand visitors a month. Imagine having them for matters affecting entire countries and global relationships. Nasty.

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