Frictional and Structural Unknowns

In labor economics, frictional unemployment is when people are in between jobs, looking, and will most likely find one.  They are unemployed for a time because search and matching are not efficient in the labor market. Structural unemployment by contrast, occurs when there is an oversupply of people looking for a certain kind of work, because of some disruptive factor such as technology change.

I do meeting observation work on occasion for clients, and it recently struck me that something similar happens when a group of people are debating a topic, attempting to reach some sort of rough consensus and decision.

Frictional unknowns are things that should be said, and could have been said by one or more participants, but remain unsaid because meetings are loosely coordinated collective intelligence mechanisms rather than systematically coordinated ones like courtroom proceedings.

Structural unknowns are things that should have been said, but could not have been by any participant because the necessary viewpoint is systematically absent in the conversation. This need not be restricted to obvious things like the female viewpoint being missing in an all-male meeting. Anything from a particular language being used, to a dominant vocabulary, to the shape of the room, can create structural unknowns.

So frictional unknowns are ideas that remain unemployed in a discussion due to inefficiency, while structural unknowns are ideas that remain unemployed because there are no employers for them.

Understanding this distinction is very useful for fixing ineffective meetings. In practice, the frictional/structural distinction matters a lot more than Rumsfeld’s known, known-unknown and unknown-unknown three-way distinction.  The latter is conceptually useful. The former is useful in live situations.

Frictional unknowns can be addressed by modifying processes, but structural unknowns can only be fixed by either bringing new people into the discussion or via creative breakthrough in a participant’s private thought process.

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  1. Gary Klein has a method he calls a premortem, where everyone in the meeting is told to assume a project has failed, and then each person is supposed to come up with an explanation of why it failed.

    It seems like that technique could potentially be useful for both unknowns. Frictional unknowns could be overcome because it gives a person a partial cover for saying what they might otherwise go unsaid and gives them an opportunity to say it. Structural unknowns might be overcome because it forces a new POV on the participants, that the project will fail. Of course, they might be missing the POV to determine why the failure would occur.

    For those missing POVs, I wonder if there are methods that might encourage the breakthroughs. If the language used or the shape of the room contribute to structural unknowns, might it be as simple as changing the room you use or language/vocabulary used? For an example of the latter, maybe coming up with an explanation that a five year old could understand would help. Or making sure you have the right verbs (see David Reed’s essay for a book on Alan Kay