Angels go in where fools fear to tread - should we be afraid of the unknown?

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They say that there are known knowns (we know what we know), known unknowns (we know what we don't know), unknown knowns (we don't know what we know) and unknown unknowns (we don't know what we don't know). The latter two have the effect of springing surprises on all of us, and while we can mitigate the first of the two through desktop research, the second needs greater amount of hands-on research. The question is, where should we look, and how much resources should we spend in looking? Indeed, should we even be afraid of the unknown; for, as they say, ignorance is bliss? In this article we explore the question, "Should we be afraid of the unknown?"

What you don't know WILL hurt you

In this day of rapid change, ignorance can be very expensive. You will not know what your competitors are doing if you are blissfully unaware; and they can sneak up and pull your business right from under your very nose. If you don't know what affects your customers, if you don't know that they have moved from print books to e-books; if you don't know that more people are buying online than before, maintaining a big retail outlet may push you closer and closer to extinction. So, in sum, you should be aware of the unknown, but you don't have to be paranoid about it. Paranoia can have a paralysing effect on people, and where they need to move, they are stuck in the moment in fear and overwhelm. So the point is clear - be concerned, not fearful.

How do we handle the unknown?

This I suppose is the most important question. Here are four steps you can do:

1. Create the future

Steve Jobs famously said that customers don't know what they want. Henry Ford said the same thing almost a century earlier when he said, "If you asked people what they wanted, they'll say the want a faster horse." They are oblivious of the unknown unknowns, and to stay in the forefront of rapid change, create the future for them. Uncover what is missing in their life and create the demand in them. This will allow you to move them from unknown unknown to known unknown, thereby creating the future.

2. Protect your idea

Before you do anything, protect your idea. In no other time has it been easier to protect an idea as it is now, and you must take this before telling the world what you are up to. The cost of protection is so much lower now, and you need to ensure that you lodge your intellectual property in the major markets like the Americas, Europe and Asia (at least in China and India). Fail to do this and you only have yourself to blame when the competition steals your idea. (There are some economies where the judiciary is biased against the small innovators. Take care going into those markets.)

3. Bring it to market fast - and listen to your customers

You don't need a perfect product - just a great idea and an open channel for communication. Put your prototype out there and let people give you feedback. Yes, I know, you are also opening yourself up to the competition who can then take your idea and make it better. Here is where your IP protection will come in handy. Then gather as much information as possible, especially from your innovators and first movers. Treat them well, give them a loud voice and listen to them, and then improve along the way, pivoting if needed. Your customers are your greatest partners for success, so make sure you have a way for them to be heard!

4. Repeat the process

Don't sit on your laurels. The biggest mistake is to sit back and collect royalties. Discontinuities will always happen. Your success yesterday might well be your failure today. Hence, you need to continue down this track repeatedly.

So don't be afraid of the unknown. In fact, this is where the greatest opportunities lie for most of us. They used to say that fools go in where angels fear to tread. Perhaps the roles have reversed now; angels go in where fools fear to tread. So here's to your success - go out there and make that killing!

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