I’m currently reading Richard A. Clarke and R. P. Eddy’s book Warnings which analyzes a number of cases where a credible subject matter expert raised concerns proactively about a looming catastrophe but was ignored until it was too late to take preventative action.
The authors refer to these unfortunate prognosticators as “Cassandras” in reference to the Greek mythology tale of the princess of Troy, Cassandra, who was cursed by Apollo to see into the future but to be ridiculed by those she tried to warn of impending disaster. Through the analysis of past tragedies the authors have developed a four part assessment to identify potential Cassandras including the nature of their warnings, the characteristics of the decision makers who have the power to act on the warnings, attributes of the Cassandras themselves and those of their critics.
So while this might make for an interesting read, what relevance does this have to project management?
Donald Rumsfeld brought the phrase “unknown unknowns” into the mainstream with his February 2002 response to a question about the evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: “…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. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.“
But are such risks really “unknown unknowns”? On any project involving a reasonable number of stakeholders, surely there was someone with the imagination and creativity to have been able to surface issues which were not identified through project risk management practices.
The failure to do so might be because of one of the following factors listed in the book:
- Initial occurrence syndrome: if a given risk has never been realized within the collective awareness of the stakeholders participating in risk identification, the tendency is to believe that it will never occur.
- Erroneous consensus: if the culture of the team is to value harmony over healthy dissent, while one team member might have the foresight to identify a radical risk, if the consensus of the remaining team members is that this is not a concern, the Cassandra will be unwilling to push their point.
- Invisible obvious: a lack of diversity within a team can increase the potential for groupthink. If we think of individual experience and knowledge as sets in a Venn diagram, we would ideally want to cover as much area as possible while still having some areas of commonality. The lower the diversity in a team, the greater the alignment of the collective sets and hence the greater the area of no knowledge.
In last week’s article I provided one possible glimpse into the future of our profession. A benefit of computer assisted project management might be a vast reduction in unknown unknowns if we choose to follow our AI’s guidance. Until then it is our responsibility as project managers to build diverse teams and to actively listen for the Cassandras within them.