Many project managers and their executive sponsors are surprised when projects go off track: “Why
didn’t we see that coming?” Even projects that employ sophisticated techniques for risk management
have surprising derailments. However, risk management can only manage known risks, and “unknown
unknowns” (often called “unk-unks”) are lurking in every project.
The authors argue, however, that many unk-unks aren’t really unk-unks at all. Rather, they are things
no one has bothered to find out. Indeed, the authors point out, 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). Every project has some of both. The techniques of conventional risk management apply
only to the known unknowns. However, some unk-unks can be converted into known unknowns
through a process of directed recognition.
The article provides an overview of the targets, methods and tools of directed recognition — the
where, why and how. First, the authors introduce six project domains in and around a project where
uncertainty resides (and where recognition should occur). Second, they describe the characteristics that
increase uncertainty in projects and explain why they make unk-unks more likely. Finally, they present a
set of techniques for converting knowable unk-unks into known unknowns.
Although unk-unks are by definition things managers don’t realize they are missing, it’s possible, the
authors say, to look at a project and its context and realize that unk-unks are likely to exist — and why.
Large, complex projects are more likely to encounter unk-unks than small, simple projects. The more
complicated a project seems to the project manager and other participants, the greater the likelihood
that something important will be missed, thus increasing the likelihood of unk-unks. Organizations that
actively look to uncover unk-unks are more likely to convert them into known unknowns. By providing
guidance on where and why unk-unks exist in projects, and how to recognize their clues, managers can
reduce the number and magnitude of unwelcome surprises.