The Story of Kieran and the Problem of Unknown Knowns
This story is a part of the series “Information Architecture & Entrepreneurship: Building Patterns for Successful Startup Ecosystems”
“So you spent the last three months building an app and didn’t check whether there were legal regulations around donating food?”
This was said by an investor to the founders of a company we’ll call Food Connect. The investor was a judge for the final showcase of the Innovation in Health competition. He asked this question to the founder Kieran and from the look of Kieran’s face
The basic premise of the company was that after large events, student organizations could all have an app that would help them donate excess food to local food pantries. Their goal was to then widen out this food donation to corporate events and large events like weddings.
I watched as the founder turned beat red on stage. It was apparent that, no, he was not aware of legal regulations around food donation. The state of Michigan has in Act 136 of 1993 of their state laws a clause for “Immunity of Food Donors from Civil Liability” so long as they act in good faith. But most people, even acting in good faith, have different ideas of how long food is ok being left out.
Some might say the two founders did not do their research properly, and you might be right. But these two founders had done extensive testing with their end users (student organizations that host large events). In the current paradigm of how to build a startup, it is this type of user-focused design inquiry that is stressed as the most pivotal to get done before building a Minimum Viable Product (MVP).
Yet, again and again, I saw many founders that faltered due to unforeseen roadblocks that could have easily been addressed at the start of their companies. When addressed later, products had often already been built and marketing materials designed and discovering roadblocks at such a late point made it so pivots to their designs and approaches became increasingly laborious. There was the entrepreneur who created organic granola bars with compostable packaging, only to find out that no grocery store would take them because compostable packaging might not last long enough on their shelves. There was the entrepreneur who built her brand based around intricately designed lipgloss cases, only to find that these intricate designs made large-scale production 10x the cost.
All of these entrepreneurs could have spent their time and money more effectively if they were aware of legal, regulatory, and production issues around their companies. But it is hard to actively seek out solutions when one is unaware of any problem.
Narrowing Unknown Knowns
Some things are really hard for businesses to account for, like global pandemics, earthquakes, or solar flares. These are what is termed “unknown unknowns,” a concept popularized by Donald Rumsfeld as George Bush’s Secretary of Defense:
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.
Unknown Unknown problems in business are unexpected and hard to predict because no one really knows for certain if or when these events will happen or their ripple effects on supply chains and demand. While certainly not futile for entrepreneurs to proactively identify unknown unknowns, these worldwide unknowns are extremely hard for anyone to account for.
The situation most entrepreneurs face when they encounter a roadblock is a bit different. They face unknown unknowns to them, but there is someone else out there in the world who does know this information. Stephen Shapiro, an expert in business innovation said in his talk at TEDxNASA, “If you’re working on an aerospace challenge, and you have 100 aerospace engineers working on it, the 101st aerospace engineer is not going to make that much of a difference. But you add a biologist, or a nanotechnologist, or a musician, and maybe now you have something fundamentally different.”
A biologist might understand how gene expression changes after spaceflight to a discussion of health concerns that need to be understood if humans are to embark on missions to Mars and other planets in the solar system. Fashion designers at NASA incorporated several different functions like lights, alarms, cooling tubes, and gas analyzers embedded into space suits’ fabric to provide astronauts with suits that provided more features with less weight. When you get people with different perspectives in the room, they bring with them new lenses that can catch potential problems before entrepreneurs expend time and money pursuing unproductive directions. Having a group of multidisciplinary people around you is much like having teammates to help you navigate a maze; with more people’s insights you can find dead ends faster and ultimately get through faster to the end.
In the next sections, we will turn from understanding the theory of why Unknown Unknowns are a challenge to founders, to finding strategic ways to build information landscapes that help them spot gaps in understanding quickly. First in “Building Multidisciplinary Collisions” we will explore how community leaders can physically design spaces for strong intersectional information webs. Secondly, we will understand how the tool of a “Deck of Lenses” that can help founders proactively uncover unknown unknowns can supplement and support intersectional spaces.