Many project challenges and failures catch executives by surprise. But not all such surprises are truly unforeseeable — if you know where to look.
Why do so many projects fail to meet their goals for time, cost and performance? Regardless of the answer, many project managers and their executive sponsors seem to be surprised when a new project gets off track: “Why didn’t we see that coming?” Even projects that employ sophisticated techniques for risk management can encounter surprising derailments. Those methods, while powerful, can only manage known risks. But projects are new and unique. What about the things that we don’t even know that we don’t know? These “unknown unknowns” — often called “unk-unks” — are lurking in every project, just waiting to emerge, surprise and derail plans. To what extent are they inevitable? What could we do better?
Project knowledge comes from learning about the project — its overall context, its goals and objectives, the process for achieving them, the people, tools and other resources to be deployed, and how all of these affect one another. This learning begins in the planning stages. One might think that planners would consider all of the scenarios, evaluate all of the options and identify all of the risks — but that is seldom the case. Many planners resist wasting resources on planning projects that may never happen. Even after a project gets the green light, a typical attitude of many managers is: “We’re already behind. We know what we need to do. Let’s get started!” As a result, the distinction between what is knowable about a project and what is actually known can be quite large.
Many so-called “unk-unks” aren’t really unk-unks at all. Rather, they are things no one has bothered to find out. Indeed, there are two kinds of unknowns: unknown unknowns (things we don’t know we don’t know) and known unknowns (things we know we don’t know). (See “Converting Knowable Unk-Unks to Known Unknowns.”) Every project has some of both. The techniques of conventional risk management apply only to the known unknowns. Yet some unk-unks are knowable and can be converted to known unknowns through a process of directed recognition.