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Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Donald Rumsfeld – My Hero!

Introducing the “Donald Rumsfeld Magic Quadrant”

Back in February 2002, Donald Rumsfeld (then US Secretary of Defense) made a now infamous statement during a news briefing in relation to evidence linking the Iraqi government to the supply of weapons of mass destruction:

…. there are known knowns; there 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 – there are things we do not know we don't know.”

Rumsfeld was broadly ridiculed, then and since, including earning the 2003 Foot In Mouth award. However, I have to declare that I am a fan (not of the man himself, I personally think his politics were pretty much despicable!), if only because this seemingly tortured use of language inspired me to develop the “Donald Rumsfeld Magic Quadrant”, which I have been using successfully as a diagnostic model for a number of years now within business transformation and change situations.

Combining Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” thinking with the well-known two-dimensional matrix structure popularised by Gartner Inc. gives rise to the following quadrant model:

  • The X-axis illustrates a measure for a person’s overall consciousness of a given subject – how aware are they of the issues at a level of theoretical understanding.
  • The Y-axis captures a measure of a person’s level of competence in executing the capability or skill at a practical delivery level.

This Magic Quadrant style matrix now allows us to assess the current-state situation for any given organisational endeavour, simply by mapping the levels of consciousness and competence against the quadrant diagram.

This simple evaluation matrix can be applied to any area of skill, capability or endeavour e.g.
  • Are the business team aware that there are data quality issues preventing us from marketing to some of our key customers, and what the underlying root causes are?
    • YES=Conscious, NO=Unconcious
  • Do they actually have the skills necessary to fix the data and ensue that it stays fixed?
    • YES=Competent, NO=Incompetent.

If you’re in the mood to make your assessment a bit more sophisticated and want to evaluate the degree of consciousness & competence, then you could choose to grade on a Likert Scale e.g.

1=Blissfully Ignorant; 2=Largely Oblivious; 3=Somewhat Concerned; 4=Matter of Urgency; 5=Aaaargh!!!!

1=Doh!; 2=Yes, I'll Get Onto...Oh Look A Squirrel; 3=Leave It With Me; 4=I've Got This; 5=It's Already Dealt With, What's Next?

Typically, when any new capability is to be introduced within the organisation, people will initially be in a state of blissful ignorance, unaware that an issue might even exist, let alone have the skills to address the problem. This baseline starting point is mapped in the red quadrant of “Unknown Unknowns”. We aspire to achieve the “Known / Knowns” status of the consciously competent expert practitioner, where the issues are well understood and with the skills and resources available to ensure that they are properly addressed.

Now, a standard learning and teaching path will lead us out from the red zone, and towards a developing a level of the “known unknowns”.

We start by raising the overall level of awareness of the issues at hand and develop people’s appetite to address the problem, while at the same time recognising that they don’t yet have the skills necessary to address the matter in a proficient manner (N.B: this is home territory for all those Management Consultants…!)

Once there is understanding of the requirements, then delivery and capability uplift can occur to develop the organisational skills and competencies necessary to deliver value.

A a more problematic learning path occurs when people exist within the organisation who already have some level of proficiency in the capability, but without fully understanding the processes and mechanisms that they are executing (we might call them “happy amateurs”). They’re getting by, but their efforts are typically not efficient, and may not be all that effective. 

The challenge in this situation is to convince the protagonist that they actually need to improve; very often however, you will be met with resistance. (“I’m fine as I am”, “I’ve always done it this way”, “who are you to tell me what to do”.)

This is where we need to work really hard to identify those “what’s in it for me” factors that will encourage further learning and improvement.

Whichever learning scenario you encounter, mapping your customers against the “Donald Rumsfeld Magic Quadrant” will help you understand the dynamics that are at play, so that you can then target your education and change efforts accordingly. 

Final thought: even though Donald Rumsfeld will now forever be remembered for the "unknown unknowns" quote, he at least has in his favour that he's not Dick Chaney...


  1. Alan,
    Politics aside, I really like this concept. I'm sure it helps businesses understand their true awareness and capabilities.
    I was a bit confused at first by the graphics as I'm not sure they match the text. I think the X and Y axis are labeled opposite what you actually state in the blog. In the graphic, I think the heading on the Y axis should be Competence, and the heading on the X axis should be Consciousness. Doing this on each graphic emphasizes your concept and your two examples. Unless I'm missing something . . .
    Anyway, I hope to use this in my future work (with proper attribution, of course).

    1. Bruce - you're dead right! (Doh!) Thanks for feeding back on this. Now fixed!

  2. Wow what a great blog, i really enjoyed reading this, good luck in your work. SIOP and student engagement