Is there really such a thing as an “unknown unknown”

In 2002, David Rumsfield inspired a months-long comedy show by giving his now-famous comment about “unknown unknowns”.

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know…

Secretary Rumsfield was actually referring to the fact that lack of evidence of the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Iraq did not necessarily mean that there indeed were no WMD in Iraq….in a very convoluted way.

In the context of risk management, unknown unknowns have come to mean unknown risks/opportunities. Sample this LinkedIn group discussion.

It has become acceptable for project managers to bucket all risks into two categories:

Known unknowns:

…..meaning we know what could possibly go wrong but we are not exactly sure if it actually will go wrong or when it will. These are the sum total of all risks that the project team can come up with. These “unknowns” are documented, monitored and mitigation plans are prepared for them. In short, the project team is prepared for these “unknowns” e.g if you are building a website and your server crashes in the middle of development. Most project managers could easily anticipate this and be prepared for if and when it happens.

Unknown unknowns:

…..meaning we do not know what else can go wrong. Obviously, these “unknowns” are never identified or documented and there can be no mitigation plans. The only mitigation plan here is a prayer. e.g if you are building a website for selling concert tickets and the government passes a law banning all concerts in the country. Almost no project manager could have seen that coming.

So what is known and what is unknown ?

The next logical question is: where is the line between known unknowns and unknown unknowns? Every project team starts with a finite amount of knowledge about the social, political and economic conditions surrounding the project. The team prepares a list of risks based on this knowledge. As the project progresses, the team has an opportunity to learn even more about its environment. This brings up an even greater awareness of what could go wrong. Given an infinite amount of time, the team would know everything about its environment and could anticipate every possible thing that could go wrong. However, no project goes on forever…in fact that is against the definition of a project.

So, is it fair to say that unknowns unknowns are a real thing ?

Could you sue a project manager if the project fails ?

Project managers are not licensed professionals like doctors, lawyers, chartered accountants etc. Though there are several organizations that offer project management training, certifications and standards, you do not need a government license to practice project management.

What this means is that you cannot hold a project manager legally accountable for a failed project. If a bridge collapses, you cannot technically sue the project manager for that construction. You might be able to sue the company that was paid to build the bridge, but not its project manager.

Contrast this with a doctor. If a patient were to die because the doctor made a mistake in the surgery, the doctor could be sued. That is a remarkable difference.

But what does that have to do with unknown unknowns ?

If you were a doctor and you prescribed a medicine to a kid without knowing that the kid was allergic to the medicine, what would happen ? The kid would have serious allergic reactions and all hell would break lose…you might even lose your license to practice if something really bad happened to the kid. Could you, as the doctor, argue that the allergic reaction was an unknown unknown and hence you are not liable ? You might, but I am not sure how well that defense would work.

The point of the above example is that how much effort is expended by the team in identifying the unknowns depends on how much of their neck is on the line. On a $100K project, you would probably spend a couple of hours identifying risks. As a result, the unknown unknowns bucket would be bigger than the known unknowns bucket.

In contrast, on a $100 million project, you would probably have a dedicated risk management team working on identifying risks round the clock. As a result, the unknown unknowns bucket would be much smaller than the known unknowns bucket.

Obviously there is a sweet-spot in every project where spending any more time and effort on risk management will only have marginal benefits.

In conclusion…

However, my personal contention is that project teams spend far less effort on risk management than they should. Every risk that they neglected to identify is conveniently bucketed under “unknown unknowns”. Imagine if project managers could be sued for a failed project — would there be a greater incentive to spend more time and effort on risk management then there is today ?

This is not to advocate that project managers should have to be licensed….there are pros and cons to that. This is simply to say that though there is such a thing as an “unknown unknown”, the unknown part of that is only relative and not absolute.


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