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The Known, the Unknowns, & the Johari Window

Knowing About Knowing

“Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, 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.” – Prior United States Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld

While the above statement had its fanfare of reactions and criticisms, the concepts underneath the statement are invaluable in the context of decision-making under uncertainty – a core feature of emergency management practice and leadership. They point to a subtle truth about domains of knowledge, how much we actually know, and how that information should influence our approach to the world. These concepts allow us to better understand “what we know about what we know” and what that means for how we make decisions.

We’re going to explore two models to represent these concepts: The Known/Unknown Matrix and the Johari Window. Both are simple, 2x2 matrices that are extremely useful when evaluating risk and uncertainty, improving communication between individuals and teams, and developing a common vision of the challenges and path forward. These tools have become a core part of my professional toolbox; there is rarely a disaster response or major decision where I do not use one of these models in my thinking and approach.

The Known/Unknown Matrix

Using the known/unknown framework, domains of knowledge can be easily represented in a 2x2 matrix. Below is a simple matrix that captures each domain of knowledge, a short description of that domain, what type of action to consider, and examples of the domain.

Known/Unknown Matrix

(have knowledge of)

(don’t have knowledge of)


(aware of)

Known Knowns

What we know and we know we know

Arena: Area of action for self and group

  • This area is easy; it is already out in the open and potential options are likely clear


  • The route to the grocery store
  • How to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  • Routine work processes, etc.

Known Unknowns

Things we know that we don't know

Arena: Area for exploration, research, and risk management

  • Understand how to sit with and navigate uncertainty, pilot and test, explore


  • Molecular chemistry (for most of us)
  • How to defuse a bomb (again, for most of us)
  • Winning Powerball ticket numbers



(not aware of)

Unknown Knowns

Things we don't know we know, refuse to acknowledge, or can't articulate

Arena: Area to point out “elephants in the room,” encourage others to share, or to recognize knowledge that cannot be articulated

  • Some things here need to be identified and called out, while others don’t or can’t be


  • An individual in the group may know something critical, but doesn’t share it broadly (self vs collective awareness)
  • A new approach is obviously failing, but no one wants to tell the leader
  • Intuitive or tactic knowledge, e.g.: recognition primed decision making

Unknown Unknowns

Things we don’t know that we don’t know

Arena: Area for actions that must take place long before the event; mitigation, preparedness, and capacity to adapt


  • Black swans – “unforeseen” events that often have an enormous impact, often unique or thought to be impossible prior
    • 9/11, 2008 financial crash, Hurricane Katrina, etc.
  • Tools, processes, principles, or concepts we have yet to discover or become aware of
    • The eventual invention of the internet would be a black swan to a 1500s printing press operator

The top row represents the “knowns” – things we are aware of and the bottom row represents the “unknowns” – things we are not aware of. Meanwhile, the left column represents things the “known” – things we have knowledge of or competence around and the right column represents the “unknown” – things we do not have knowledge of or competence around. For example, the top right box of “Known Unknowns” represents things that we are aware of that we don’t know; for me I know that I know next to nothing about molecular chemistry, which I would put in this box. This matrix organizes all types of information, or lack thereof, into 4 broad domains by displaying the relationship between knowledge and awareness.

The Known Knowns

This is the domain of knowledge that tends to be most comfortable for people – the things we know that we know. This domain contains all the knowledge that we possess and are aware of. It is often much easier to navigate in this domain than the others. Problems here frequently have predefined solutions such as “when this request comes in, do X - Y - and Z” or “reference this item, then compare to this thing, then send findings to this person.” For the most part, this domain doesn’t get people into trouble. The biggest challenge here is when we think things are in this domain and they aren’t – when we know (believe) something to be true when it isn’t. While this category may intuitively seem to be the largest to us, since we’re incredibly familiar with the things we know we know, in reality it is likely the smallest of the four.

The Known Unknowns

People tend to be less comfortable with this domain (uncertainty avoidance) and it can cause challenges for leaders who are unfamiliar with navigating uncertainty – these are the things we know we don’t know. In this domain, we are still well positioned to take action and navigate the world. By knowing what we don’t know, we simultaneously understand the limitations of what we can forecast and where exploration should begin. Topics and problems in this domain are areas for further research (personal or organizational), piloting and testing (ideally with low cost of failure), and risk management (avoid unforeseen ruin). Two major risks in this domain include the tendency to believe you’re aware of everything you don’t know (ignoring the presence of unknown/unknowns) – and – a desire to treat things as “known” that are not. The latter tends to happen much more frequently with motivated thinking (eg: this campaign will reach X number of people because we want it to happen).

The Unknown Knowns

This domain is odd as it encompasses a few different categories of knowledge. Within this domain are the things that are knowns (have knowledge of or competence around) but are unknown to us (we’re not aware of them). At a group level, this could include information that one member of the group knows but the larger group isn’t aware of. While the knowledge is within the group (it is a “known”), the group isn’t aware of it (is unknown). Without the larger group being aware of the knowledge that the individual has, they can’t do anything with it. Also, within groups, this may represent information that nearly everyone sees but no one is willing to say (make known to the group as a whole). Nearly everyone can think of an instance where an approach or solution was doomed to fail but no one wanted to tell the boss. Finally, this domain includes knowledge that we possess but cannot articulate (intuitive or tacit knowledge). While I cannot describe all the steps and processes that occur to make it happen, I “know” how to lift my arm. Putting it in a professional context, this happens all the time with disaster responders who make rapid decisions using prior experience and mental modeling (recognition primed decision making). While they may be able to describe their decision-making process retroactively, it is largely piecing together something in retrospect that happens intuitively and automatically.

The Unknown Unknowns

This is the deadliest domain – the things we don’t know we don’t know. We are completely unaware of things here; we’re not even aware that we don’t know. Imagine an 8-year-old child raised in rural India dropped into the middle of New York City at 2:00am. The number of things that they could get into danger around – that they have no idea even exist (unknown/unknowns) – is likely very high. In the same way, each of us and our institutions have a multitude of things that we don’t know we don’t know and a subset of those are extremely deadly. While we can deal with unknowns we are aware of through research or pilot projects, our lack of awareness makes us vulnerable in this domain. Highly impactful but very infrequent events (high impact/low frequency) hide here. Think of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the impending Cascadia Subduction Zone event, and so forth. Alternatively, this can be thought of in terms of industry changing technology (e.g.: television for the radio). I would argue that this is actually the biggest domain and that “what we don’t know we don’t know” far encompasses all other domains of knowledge combined. One of the biggest challenges of this domain is that actions often must be taken far before the event occurs, and as noted, events in this domain are inherently unforeseen.

As a quick note, the “unforeseen” nature of an event is in the eyes of the beholder or level of analysis (individual, group, organization, society, etc.). Some of the above examples may be known to some and unknown/unforeseen to others. It may also refer to the scale of impact – “we didn’t know it would be this bad.”

Johari Window – Another Frame

While the known/unknown matrix can help us map domains of knowledge/unknowledge broadly, the Johari Window helps us map understanding and knowledge amongst our teams. Originally created by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham, this tool was designed to help improve collaboration and communication between individuals and teams. Although the model typically focuses on personality traits or attitudes (eg: modest, confident, clever, etc.), it is also useful when applying it to knowledge or information.  I’ll be stretching the intended use of this tool to focus on domains of knowledge opposed to individual differences or biases.

Johari Window




Open – Arena

I know

And others know

And we know we know


Blind – Blindspot

I don’t know

But others do



Hidden – Façade/

I know

But others don’t

Or, we don’t know that each other knows



No one knows

And that’s not great

At first glance, it is easy to see how similar this is to the known/unknown matrix. The key difference is this matrix focuses on the relationship of our knowledge to the knowledge of others. The window is organized by the things “we know/don’t know” and the things “others know/don’t know” with each box representing the intersection of those two items. Opposed to evaluating what is known/unknown and what we’re aware of, this matrix helps us understand the interrelationship of knowledge within our teams and organizations. How we navigate differences in knowledge depends heavily on which box we’re operating within.

Open – The Arena

This is the sweet spot for being able to turn ideas into action. It represents all the information you know, others know, and that you both know each other knows (a key feature). If an item isn’t in this domain, it is nearly impossible for a team to collaborate around it. Afterall, if someone isn’t aware of something how can they act on it? Consider situations in your life when something moved from one of the other boxes to “the arena.” These situations often feel like something suddenly “clicked” with everything falling into place once a key piece of information is shared. At times, this can be achieved by simply letting others know that you both know. For example, while you and a colleague from another department both individually know that the new demands placed on their team have slowed down your shared project, acknowledging that with them (making it known that you both know) brings that truth into the arena. By letting them know that you know, you bring that reality to the surface (arena) where it can be addressed directly opposed to being buried under assumptions. As a goal, we’re consistently trying to move knowledge into this box.

Blind – Blindspot

This is the box for things we don’t know but others do. We don’t necessarily have to try and move things out of this box, but we do have to constantly recognize that this box exists – and it is bigger than the arena. The collective knowledge possessed by others far exceeds what we have as individuals. We constantly need to trust the expertise and knowledge of others as there are simply too many things for an individual to learn and specialize in. The challenge for us here is primarily 1.) identifying what information we want or need to better understand, and 2.) getting that information from a reliable source. Efforts in this area include everything from mindful evaluation of what you don’t know, to evaluating and engaging subject matter experts to expand your knowledge, to ensuring your team feels comfortable letting you know about your blindspots as a leader or teammate.

Hidden – Façade

There are two primary items in this domain; the things we know but others don’t - and – things we may all know but don’t know that others know. Within the first category is information you have that you don’t or haven’t yet shared with others. Not everything in this domain needs to be moved to the arena, but at times there is a critical piece of information or a valuable perspective that rests within an individual and isn’t shared amongst the group. There can be a lot of reasons for this such as personality traits (introversion, fear of speaking), team environment (low psychological safety), or the individual may not even know the information should be shared (lack of team awareness, either within the individual or group as a whole). In these situations, it is essential to help the team understand what types of information should be shared, with whom and for what purpose, and to create an environment where people feel safe and empowered to do so. The second category primarily involves things we all may know but don’t know each other knows. Imagine two assassins undercover each with an assignment to kill the other. They happen to end up in the same elevator, both in disguise, and they both recognize one another. What happens next is radically different if each one thinks the other doesn’t know opposed to if they both know they both know. That is the difference between the façade and the arena.

The Unknown

The final domain is the domain of the unknown; the things we simply do not know nor do others. This includes all the same sort of categories of things described in the “unknown/unknown” section above. Aside from housing all manner of the unforeseen, items in this domain are often also highly consequential despite (and often because) of how infrequently they occur (high impact/low frequency events again). While it’s hard to act against a specific thing in this domain, because we don’t know what we don’t know, we can take general actions to protect us against what may occur. For example, I may not know specifically what will interrupt my workday but I can assume that any given day will include unforeseen tasks and I should budget time as such.

Applying the Models

Equipped with a basic understanding of these two models, we can apply them to navigating risk and uncertainty in addition to improving communication across our teams.

Navigating Risk & Uncertainty

To use these tools to navigate risk and uncertainty, we must practice intellectual humility while being doggedly realistic about what domain we’re currently operating within; failing to do so can be catastrophic. You can find examples of poor assumptions leading to terrible consequences throughout both disaster response and leadership literature (see Hurricane Katrina, Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, and so forth). A desire to avoid uncertainty, to achieve unrealistic goals, or to portray confidence can lead us to treat things as being more black and white than they really are. Furthermore, at times leaders may become focused more on the public affairs of a mission than the actual operational outcomes; it becomes more about the perception of what we’re doing than the reality. This represents a failure to be honest about what domain we’re operating within along with a tendency to replace the thing with the symbol.

Keeping these models in mind, and holding yourself accountable to how much you truly know about a topic, helps ground us in intellectual humility by reminding us that the “unknown/unknowns” is likely the biggest box. Once we can honestly and accurately assess what domain we’re operating within, we can focus our efforts on taking the proper action.

Known Knowns: This is already our sweet spot – we want things to be here. Once we understand something and we’re aware of it, it is far easier to take action. Once things are in this domain, we just need to make continuous improvements to our approach and stay ahead of a changing environment. The primary danger here is if we assume things are in this domain that are not. A constant critical eye to “how much we really know” is helpful here.

Known Unknowns: While this domain can make some uncomfortable, it is actually a great place to be. When we know what we don’t know, we have a clear target for action. While we may not understand the “thing”, we’re aware of it – and once we’re aware of it we can act on it. Actions in this domain include research, exploration, pilots and testing (ideally with low cost of failure), along with developing a high degree of comfort for uncertainty. As long as you’re aware of what you don’t know, you can progress towards moving information from this domain to the known/known. The key here is doing so in a way that is cost-effective and avoids risk of ruin.  

Unknown Knowns: Actions in this domain depend heavily on the nature of the unknown/known. For example, if group members hold critical information but are not sharing it widely amongst the group, there could be several causes each with their own appropriate action. It is possible the members don’t know what information is useful, that it should be shared, how often it should be shared and with whom, etc. Alternatively, there may not be a high degree of trust amongst the team or other interpersonal issues.
This may also represent things people know but are not aware of. I see this all the time with experienced responders who can look at a situation and develop an effective strategic approach almost immediately. As a learning opportunity, folks like this can often be asked to retroactively explain their intuitive process- frequently “discovering” it themselves as they do- to share insights with those that have less experience. At times, the most useful action in this domain is recognizing there are things people may know but cannot or do not articulate – and those things are still of tremendous value.

Unknown Unknowns: This domain is the most difficult and the deadliest to navigate. Because things in this domain are inherently unknown and often infrequent, we are likely to be vulnerable and underprepared. This means, if the thing hiding in this domain is of any significant consequence, it will likely knock us flat. Aside from taking actions to improve information sharing and psychological safety amongst teams (more on that in the next section), the best course of action here is anticipating the unexpected. Although this sounds like an oxymoron, it is a practical strategy to take. You don’t need to know what is going to cause traffic on your route (where an accident will occur, construction, etc.) to know that you may need to plan for traffic. In the same way, you don’t have to know what specific terrible thing is coming your way to know you should be prepared for one.

To prepare for the unexpected, there are three broad principles I encourage you to keep in mind. First, mitigate risks of ruin (things you cannot survive) and be aware of hidden tradeoffs in your decisions. Secondly, prepare for things you may need to do but couldn’t “wing”; you want the first evacuation of your building to be an exercise not a real event. The deadliest things are the things you do infrequently. Lastly, build capacity and capability to adapt – this allows you to navigate both unforeseen risks and opportunities without the need to accurately forecast. There is a lot more to say about each of these three principles, but this at least provides a broad philosophical approach to navigate this domain.

Team Communication & Operating Picture

When it comes to team communication, our goal is to create an environment through process and culture that allows team members to share information effectively to advance the mission. While that broad topic is beyond the scope of this article, a focus on psychological safety, a clear leader’s intent, and an effective communication process/tempo will go miles in increasing the common operating picture of a team.

The Johari Window as a tool allows us to apply many of these principles to interpersonal and team communications. Broadly, it helps recognize each of our team members comes to a topic with their own window – complete with blindspots, facades, and unknowns. By being mindful of these domains for each person or group, we can open the door for others to illuminate our blindspots, share valuable information amongst the team previously kept by only a few, and understand the limits of our collective knowledge. There are a few specific actions you can take for each domain:

Open – The Arena: This is where we want to be – no major action to take! At times, moving things into this box only takes the recognition that “we both know that we know.” The knowledge that both people, or all involved, see the same thing is often the catalyst for movement. If I haven’t driven this point home thus far, maybe Friends can help.  

Blind – The Blindspot: Removing barriers to sharing information is the name of the game here. As leaders, we want to increase the amount of psychological safety on our teams so people feel comfortable raising concerns, questions, complaints, and so forth. Furthermore, have we set clear expectations around what is important to share, when, with whom, and why? Do people know what they should be sharing and why it is important? Clear expectations, supportive processes and tempos, and strong team psychological safety are critical tools here.

Hidden – Façade: Many of the same principles apply to the façade that do to the blindspot – psychological safety, clear expectations, and supportive processes help here as well. Two key differences here are the internal nature of the façade for the self and the category of things “we all know but no one says out loud.” For ourselves, if we’re holding back important information, we need to ask ourselves “why?” The right action may require courage or even leaving an environment if truth isn’t able to be spoken. In a similar way, there may be truths that everyone knows but doesn’t know that everyone else sees. A clear example is the project that is absolutely doomed to fail, and no one says so during the meeting, but in the informal conversations that occur afterward everyone sees it as a bad idea. Those post-meeting conversations move that truth from a façade (people see but don’t know others know) into the arena (we know and we know each other knows). One is a lot easier to act on.

The Unknown: There isn’t a lot to add here that isn’t already covered in the unknown/unknowns section above. The primary action here is mapping the known/unknowns and taking the appropriate next step – meanwhile utilizing the broad actions described previously to “prepare for the unexpected.”

While there is a lot more to be written about these tools and their application to decision-making and leadership, it is my hope that this short article provided some insight into their incredible utility. Careful attention to and management of the unknowns, whether it’s our own knowledge or the collective knowledge of our teams, is essential to navigating uncertainty and fostering effective communication in changing environments. By learning how to recognize the unknowns and leverage tools such as these matrices, we are far better equipped to both manage risk and capitalize on opportunities that come our way.