The Known-Unknowns Of Competitive Differentiation

Industry Trends, Tools and Resources
Mitch Turck

Question: What’s your mental model for getting answers outside of your team’s expertise?

Spend enough time around product teams or Big 4 consulting firms, and you’ll inevitably find yourself using the Known-Unknowns Matrix in some capacity — especially when it comes to assessing your competitive differentiation in the market. I’ll spare you the full matrix walkthrough, and instead highlight its most actionable and operational quadrant: Known-Unknowns.

Why Known-Unknowns Are An Unquestionable Unlock

The four-quadrant matrix originally developed as the Johari Window was made famous by Donald Rumsfeld, in a 2002 press conference where he said: “There are known-knowns... we also know there are known-unknowns.” That latter portion reflects the risk in your organization where you are aware (known) of what needs to be answered (unknown) — you just don’t have the answer readily available within your own halls of knowledge.

Weak business leaders can’t get past the concept on its face: “of course there are things I know that I don’t know… why bother worrying about that?” This destructive lack of self-awareness is exactly why certain platforms and processes need to exist in your org, and it’s part of the reason we created

What’s so magical about the Known-Unknowns quadrant is that often it contains both the question and a clear path to the answer. Let’s dissect an example question your org might insert into this quadrant:

“Why do customers churn due to price, instead of trying the downgrade option first?”

A question like this gets tossed about your office, and everyone speculates on the why. Each member of your team probably has their own opinion. But did you notice the clue staring right back at you in that question? There’s a subject matter expert who knows this answer, and it’s not your team members. Your team has never churned on price, and unless they talk to customers regularly, lack the experience and context necessary to deliver a confident answer.

It’s your customers, partners, and advisors who know the answer. What’s more, as a collective they can help you understand how frequent and important this issue is — because of course, if you rely on your internal churn KPIs, they’ll always misinform you that a customer’s price concern is a 1 in frequency and a 5 in importance. Internal metrics won’t tell you when a customer started doubting your product’s competitive differentiation. Only your customer can speak to that… hence, the Known-Unknown.

Testing Competitive Differentiation Through Known-Unknowns

Before we talk about looping in external parties (customers, partners, prospects, advisors) to solve Known-Unknowns, let’s try a team exercise in competitive differentiation.

Take’s Differentiation and Confidence scales (1-5), and challenge your team members to answer a core question like, “what’s our most compelling competitive advantage?”

Once they’ve answered, ask them to rank their response from 1-5 in both differentiation (how hard is it for competitors to meet or beat your claim), and confidence (how sure are you this is correct or said differently how readily can you back up your claim). Anything 3 or below — on either scale — should get tossed for the purpose of this exercise because it won’t cut through the noise in a customer’s literal procurement process… and anecdotally, teams with average differentiation of 3.75+ can close up to 40% faster.

If you have any 4s and 5s still standing, invite subject matter experts and client-facing personnel outside your team but inside your org to re-grade those answers, along with their best counter-arguments competitors might claim.

Still have some 4s and 5s on the list? That’s potentially powerful differentiation. Now take it to the big boss — no, not your CEO, but your customers and partners. Invite them to re-grade the last answers standing and provide their own perspectives on what competitors would counter with.

If any 4s and 5s make it through that gauntlet, you know you’ve got market-leading competitive differentiation in those areas, and those value props should be baked into everything from your product experience to your marketing materials. All those other answers that fell by the wayside still have value, though: they are proof of the disconnect between your team’s awareness of the product, and the market’s knowledge.

The answers that scored less than or equal to 3 are the seeds from which Known-Unknowns can germinate. And thanks to this exercise, you already know who has the answers to those emerging questions.

An easy, engaging, and incredibly impactful exercise, right? And even better if it could be run on a real-time collaboration platform, rather than a series of meetings and emails and data synthesis? Congratulations: you’ve just discovered one of the most popular use cases behind

Is that a convincing reason to try SkillBuilder? If so, you can get started for free here. If not, tell me why, and I’ll owe you a favor.

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