Unknown unknowns are in the very center of Project Management.
Project management is the process of making something new. When you do that, you may be just assembling familiar pieces in familiar ways. That’s the simplest activity on the arc that graduates through levels of familiarity (process management, really) into areas of creativity at increasing levels of risk.
Risk is the possibility that what you attempt won’t work, and failure can sometimes carry a high price. So project work often is launched and conducted tentatively. The sponsoring organization bases its approach on wishing and hoping more than on managing, particularly managing risk.
Timidity puts real project success out of reach, and many organizations assume that’s the way it has to be.
Successful organizations, on the other hand, accept a certain level of failure. They learn from their failures, and apply the learning to a broad pattern of success. Their failure is a purposeful, controlled component of their success. They know they can’t grow without it.
The fundamental structure of creative success is project management. It starts with how circumstances are evaluated.
“Knowns,” in project management, are the elements of a situation that require management but don’t carry much risk. You just have to manage resources and schedule well to achieve success with your knowns.
Some people, including myself, call that kind of work “process management.” It can be very important and very valuable, but it’s not really project management.
When risk is part of the equation, you’re getting into real project management.
Start with known unknowns. They are the challenges you know you’re going to face, such as, “How do we solve these three technical challenges and get this gizmo running by X date without spending more than Y dollars?” They’re risky, but the risks are within familiar bounds. You’ve seen similar situations before.
There are additional factors that can deepen the need for a project management approach. Common ones are complexity, unfamiliarity and various dependencies.
In this situation of uncertainty, you have to get dedicated, imaginative, reliable input from stakeholders – but your stakeholders may not really grasp what this is all about. They just know how they want it to turn out.
This is dealing with known unknowns. It can be quite difficult, so much so that many managers really don’t expect any project to fully succeed. The common expectations can be so low that managers come to expect project overruns in budget and schedule – along with shortfalls in meeting expectations.
Such an attitude leads to carelessness that fulfills the negative expectations.
One example is a shutdown of situational awareness, another important factor in project success. Some of what we do in projects is so familiar we are in danger of slipping into an “autopilot" mentality. We slide along an accustomed route and fail to catch the moment it intersects with the new and unfamiliar.
Good project management includes this awareness, the attention to the ongoing activities that alerts the manager when something is not working as intended. This attentive engagement twins up with proper planning to create a fail-safe system of observation that is essential to keeping the project on the right trajectory.
Unknown unknowns are mysteries residing at the apex of the hierarchy of project challenges. The more innovative the desired result, and the more creative the challenge to achieve it, the less sure you can be about how to go about the project.
At some point, you realize that this project is into areas so unfamiliar that you have no idea even where to look for problems and barriers. If you get thrown on the defensive because you keep getting hit with unexpected difficulties, your chances for success keep diminishing.
The handy way to describe this situation is: “What do you do when you don’t know what to do?”
What you do is risk management.
The professional response to unknown unknowns is to make them known through progressive low-risk piloting.
You swallow the risk in limited portions, carefully planning, tracking and analyzing the results of each step, then repeating with the new knowledge. You never risk a lot as you create concrete experience of what works.
Expectations and assumptions are recorded in advance. So are specifics about steps to be taken and the intended result of each. Then, as each part progresses, real-time measurements are taken and evaluated.
Adjustments are made as needed, and succeeding steps are developed on the basis of the newly learned information.
With practice, this careful development of actual experience does not have to be excessively time-consuming. And, of course, you’re not investing valuable time in repairing damage.
This, in common with many effective project management tools, is not as popular as it deserves to be. The sense of hurry and worry too often associated with the project management mentality does not encourage the initiation of small-increment early steps within a controlled pattern.
That also is a project risk, this time within the attitude and performance of the project manager.
Over-all, the answer to handling project risk becomes obvious, although not simple: When you don’t know what to do, find out.
WHAT DO YOU THINK? When you review projects of your experience, how do you rate the relationship between intended quality and perceived risk? How was it handled?
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