Don’t Ignore The Known Elephant – Managing Project Risk

by | 08/01/2021 | Successful Delivery

In February 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, the then US Secretary of State for Defence, stated at a Defence Department briefing:

‘There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.’

Many people thought this statement was nonsense and, on the surface,  it appears to be, however, careful examination of what Rumsfeld said reveals that it does actually make sense.  If you are to successfully deliver your IT project, you need to know how to cater for both the knowns and unknowns you will encounter.

The “known knowns”  (i.e. the things we do know about) are the scope and constraints of our project and we allow for these in our planning process because they are known.

The “known unknowns” we classify as Assumptions and Risks.  Assumptions we know about, but we don’t know for sure they will occur and Risks we know about, but we may not know the likelihood of them occurring or the severity of their impact.

That leaves us with the “unknown unknowns”.  Things we don’t know that we don’t know?  As a project manager, how do we plan for what we don’t know?  This is where project contingency comes into your planning – you need to build a contingency for time, scope and budget to allow for these “unknown unknowns” and hope that this contingency is sufficient to meet and defeat the “unknowns” if and when they occur.

Although “Unknown unknowns” are often the cause of project failure, it is not uncommon that a project goes off the rails because of the “known unknowns”, or rather because we ignore the known risks.

I will use a metaphor of the elephant in the room to explain some of the reasons why we ignore these known risks despite them being obvious and in some cases being captured as risks before you commence your project. 

Let sleeping Elephants lie – This is a situation in which stakeholders are aware of the risk, but don’t do anything about it in the hope that it will not occur. Consequently, they have no idea how to handle it if it does.

It’s not my Elephant – This is a situation where no one is willing to take responsibility for owning and managing the risk. It simply gets passed around until it is eventually given to someone who is reluctant to do anything about actually resolving it.

The Elephant isn’t really there – This is often a case of collective blindness to a risk that everyone knows is there, but wilfully chooses to ignore.   No one acknowledges the risk, perhaps because to acknowledge it may mean that they get handed responsibility for it.

The Elephant has powerful friends – This is a situation where a senior project stakeholder or group of stakeholders actually increases the likelihood of a risk through making a bad decision.  A common example of this is when deadlines based on fantasy and not fact are imposed onto the project by  stakeholders.

The Elephant will just leave – This is where the team assumes that the risk will magically disappear of its own accord and is quite common in some organisations.

It’s not really an Elephant – In these situations a risk can be incorrectly seen as something else, such as an opportunity.  For example, introducing a new project methodology for the first time could be seen by some team members as an opportunity, when in reality it is more likely a risk to the project’s success.

The Elephant is dead – If when asked about the status of a risk, the response is “that it is no longer a problem,” chances are the elephant is just sleeping and not actually dead.

“Known Unknowns” that are ignored can be the metaphorical elephant in the room and although they can be easy to ignore, if they eventuate, they can run amok and wreak havoc on your project.

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