Known Unknowns and the Coffee Conundrum

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” — Donald Rumsfeld, 2009

Sometimes in your business you face known unknowns, those things you can’t figure out. They’re distinguished from unknown unknowns because known unknowns are, well, known problems or issues.

I’m really not trying to traffic in tongue twisters here. My point is that sometimes in business you know you have a problem, but you can’t figure out why.

This brings up coffee. It will help me illustrate my point.

Why sensitive teeth hide secrets

Sometimes coffee (iced coffee or hot) is more than your morning salvation. Sometimes it can unlock a mystery very much needing to be unlocked.

I have sensitive teeth. So do millions of other people. For years dentists have told me to use sensitive toothpaste, which I’ve done. Religiously. Twice a day. And I added antiseptic mouthwash and flossing for good measure.

Nothing. My teeth are as sensitive today and they were a few years back when I started my whole oral regimen. In fact, they might even be a little more sensitive.

I was scratching my head. I was facing a known unknown. I knew there was a reason my teeth weren’t getting better, but I didn’t know why. Was it operator error? Was I eating the wrong kinds of foods? Was it just a bad roll of the genetic dice?

None of the above, as it turns out.

The culprit in the cupboard

I spoke to my dentist about my sensitivity problem once again recently. After she gave me suggestions for things I’ve already been doing, I decided to keep probing until I got some news I could use. We had this conversation:

“My teeth are still sensitive. It feels like a jolt of electricity races up my skull whenever I eat anything too cold.”

“Maybe your enamel is soft.”

“What could be causing that? Sugar?”

“Acid breaks down tooth enamel.”

“And what could be causing the acid?”

“Something acidic you drink.”

“I drink coffee and tea.”

“That could be it. Do you drink them throughout the day?”

“Yes. Why?”

And so on and so forth. She informed me that coffee and tea are acidic, and it takes your enamel several hours to recover once you have a cup of joe. Because I wasn’t allowing enough time between caffeinated indulgences, the enamel on my teeth never got the chance to recover from the shock of the high pH. Hence my continually sensitive teeth, despite the sensitive teeth toothpaste.

Now I know what’s causing the problem and what I need to do about it: Don’t drink coffee throughout the day, but only at certain intervals.

Getting to known knowns

What’s the biggest known unknown facing your business today?

When it comes to your branding, there may be signs of trouble, like an erosion in your customer base. (That’s the known.) But you may not know the cause of the trouble so you can course correct. (That’s the unknown.)

Your objective as a leader working with a brand strategist is to turn the known unknown into a known known.

How do you do that? Start at the beginning with diagnostic questions and go from obvious to not-so-obvious.

For example, if you’re not getting the expected/normal amount of leads from your website, it could be any number of things. But start with a simple question:

What is everything that needs to happen for us to get a lead?

Now, I’m not just talking philosophically (e.g., we need to offer what customers want), but also operationally (e.g., our lead form needs to be working properly). Make a list of everything that goes into getting your desired result and then go down the list.

If you still can’t pinpoint the problem, it means that you’re missing something important. Get some outside perspective. Talk to customers. Talk to your vendors (if applicable).

Solutions are available. But first you need to get to the heart of the matter. Your brand will thank you for it.

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