Discovering “Unk-Unks”

How innovators identify the critical things they don’t even know that they don’t know.

In January 2005, Kenn Jorgensen and Cassian Drew, two British entrepreneurs who were passionate about rock climbing, wanted to know if their sport could be adapted for use in exercise facilities. Indoor climbing walls already existed, but they were used by serious climbers in urban areas as substitutes for outdoor rock formations that weren’t easily accessible. What if a new kind of low-impact, high-tech exercise regime could be created that was done on climbing walls just a few feet off the ground in ordinary fitness studios with ordinary ceilings, invigorating music and a spirited instructor — but with walls equipped with climbing holds? “A surefire winner,” said one of their rock-climbing buddies. “Not a chance,” said a female fitness aficionado who worked out three times a week in a nearby gym. Jorgensen and Drew decided they needed to confirm or refute what they thought they knew about their innovative idea: bringing climbing concepts to fitness studios. More crucially, though, they set out to try to discover the unknown unknowns — the “unk-unks,” as such unknowns have long been called in engineering and project management circles. In other words, they sought to identify things they didn’t know they didn’t know that could derail the new venture they were considering. In a series of interviews with fitness operators, the would-be entrepreneurs made a number of discoveries. First, it turned out that mirrors, which were found in most fitness studios, were superfluous to the studio operators and their customers. There would be no reluctance to replace them with climbing devices. Second, fitness studios were concerned with maximizing the use of their facilities throughout the day. Rooms that served multiple purposes could earn revenue in multiple ways. What’s more, the typical fitness studio spent roughly $56,500 each year on capital expenditures, more than enough to tear down the mirrors and install the proposed climbing holds. This information represented good news for Jorgensen and Drew. But all these lessons learned were known unknowns — things they knew they had to ask about. As their thoughtful questioning built trust with fitness operators over a series of meetings, Jorgensen and Drew continued their questioning. They were searching for unk-unks — barriers or customer needs that they had yet to uncover. As things turned out, there was one such unknown, and it caused Jorgensen and Drew to abandon their business idea.

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