The “Unknown Unknowns”. Can I vaccinate my business?

The “Unknown Unknowns”. Can I vaccinate my business?

Unknown unknowns!!! “What are you talking about?” you might ask.

Think about it. Like the hole on the road ahead that you cannot see until your car bumps in. It blindsides you from a seemingly smooth road journey and could end up in disruption or even disaster.

Although professionals come across this type of unforeseen issue more often than they would like, the concept of “unknown unknowns” isn’t perhaps discussed or considered enough within the construction industry.  These unknowns, when they arise, can cause significant risks to a business or a project. It normally results in a delivery program delay and with a negative financial impact.

So, is it possible to plan for an unforeseen circumstance even if we don’t know what is it and if it will happen?

In this article, we will take a journey into the “unknown unknowns” concept and discuss 5 ways that can help your organisation to minimise risks from such unforeseen situations.

What are “unknown unknowns”?


There are things that we know, and there are things that we don’t know. This sounds obvious and straightforward I admit, but one important thread that relates to both is that we know about them. We know the things that we know, and we know that there are things that we do not know. For example, I could know that there is a remedy for my sore knee, but I do not know what it is. I know that my doctor knows, but I do not know it myself.

In contrast, there are things which we don’t know, that we don’t know about. Our immediate social circles also do not know about it. These are the “unknown unknowns”.

Sounds like a riddle? Maybe the below figure can help.

Understanding unknown unknowns

Unknown Unknown are issues that can cause work to stop altogether.  They are not revealed to us at the onset of a project, but would later reveal themselves later. In the context of business, and the construction industry specifically, these are our “blind spots”.

Some short examples


An example of this topic which screams out at the moment, is the recent outbreak of the novel coronavirus. This latest strain of the virus, originating in China, has caused an international outbreak. New cases are developing daily, with thousands of related fatalities reported. With an estimated incubation period of 14 days, travellers unwittingly carry the virus around and infect those in close contact.

To date, this outbreak has already cost the global economy billions of dollars in lost revenue and could be a cause of a global economic slowdown. This effect is not because of the direct fatalities and the loss of human capital from the sickness related to the virus, but rather to the disruptive nature that it had on everyday life and our ability to use the economic means as usual. For example, the leisure and entertainment sector has been fiercely affected due to tight Travel restrictions to minimise the spread of the virus.

The impact of the novel corona-virus outbreak is also being felt within the construction industry.

As the global economy got entangled in the last decades, construction companies have been procuring material from all over the globe in a bid to reach more competitively priced products. In this aspect, China (the epicentre of the outbreak) grew to be a major supplier hub to the industry.

Impact of an Unknown unknown


We can all see the impact of quarantine and containment efforts in China. The closure of production facilities and tight restrictions on transport directly affect the manufacturing capacity of the country.  Added to that, the tight border controls and international travel restrictions have had a direct impact on distribution channels serving overseas markets.

From delays in receiving materials to the need to restart the qualification process of other sources.  Many construction companies who have failed to identify a similar scenario as a potential risk, within their supply chain, are now facing major setbacks on their projects.

Such circumstances would lead to an increase in project cost and affect the Contractors’ ability to complete works on time.

To add to the complexity of the situation, today many large Chinese contracting companies are operating outside of China, such as in the UAE.  With international travel restricted, it will be difficult to supply resources to serve active projects.  These organisations may need to look at an alternative strategy and secure local hire of staff to supplement the labour. This would be another source of a significant cost increase and project delivery delay.

Another example of an “unknown unknown” which occurred several years ago, in my home town.  A local construction firm was developing a new residential estate between the existing occupied house.  During the excavation works the excavator hit a metal surface of a considerable-sized object, and thus couldn’t continue with the work.

An undetonated WW2 bomb was found buried in the dirt.

This resulted in all works having to cease and an evacuation of the local area, pending the authority’s investigation and removal.  It took several months before work could restart, due to the seriousness of the situation and a screening of the surrounding area was required.

Almost daily there are unexpected challenges in construction which all professionals anticipate. Risks associated with the challenges are not always assessed with a mitigation plan implemented to deal with issues if they arise. This leads to project delays, claims, and variations from such a reactive approach.

What planning can we do?


So, are we able to plan for these eventualities that could jeopardise our meticulous planning and running of our projects?

Most organisations have good procedures in place; however, they don’t always evaluate risks that may potentially occur. They might not think to proactively seek out risks, which could potentially stop a project in its tracks.

In many cases, an “unknown unknown” can be an “unknown known” (you can find the difference in the earlier figure). By definition, this would change the related risk severity and make it possible to mitigate.

The shift of an “unknown” from being an “unknown” to being “known”, in many cases, utilise group knowledge and taps into companies’ operational history and recorded data.

Top 5 ways to minimise the risk of the “unknown unknowns”.

Next are our top 5 ways for identifying and minimising the effect of the “unknown unknowns” whenever they arise.

1. Seek out and find answers

A method you can use to unveil the “unknown unknowns” is to speak to other professionals in your organisation from an insider’s perspective.  You can find out what other professionals during their career have had to overcome, on previous projects.  Also, the type of situations that they didn’t foresee in the past.

Most people are happy to share their past experiences on projects to individual peers, as a demonstration of their abilities and experience. Organisations often do not recognise or seek to find out this information, so that they have the potential to use it as a control mechanism to mitigate risks in their organisation.

Prior to any work starting on the project, you can collaborate with your team and ask questions such as “What did you wish you knew on your last project before it happened?” – “Was there a situation that caused you long delays on the projects you have worked on?. “Did you find any inaccurate assumptions for your project?”

Another question you can ask – (although this is a tricky one). Were there any mistakes you made where your actions caused further issues?.  Granted that most people wouldn’t want to share this information with their current employers! But there may be some important insights shared.

You can collate these into a list and add these to your Quality Risk Register.  This will enable you to prepare a mitigation action plan, along with a procedure to tackle a similar issue, should it arise.

As we mentioned earlier, these risks are often not unknown unknowns.  Usually someone is privy to this information, whether it was a past event with a different company or on a previous project.

This collaborative approach is also a great way to involve your employees in taking part in the solution to raising quality standards and to promote a quality culture.

2. Management Review Meeting

In every Quality Management System, there is a requirement to hold a Management Review meeting annually where Management discuss the Quality results and findings and identify areas for  improvements.

Many times, these meetings do not take place, as no one appears to understand the importance of holding such meetings.  This is a missed opportunity. It is an opportune moment to discuss and share the “unknown knowns” and source information from the project team members to reincorporate into the plan for the next project and to gain insights that will help you to improve the business.

We recommend that you increase the frequency of these Quality Management meetings as you could be missing critical information. Remember as employees leave projects, they also take with them important knowledge and information.

3. WAR Meeting

Hold a WAR meeting.  This is another way you can gain access to “on-the-pulse information” .  Project Managers often use this term. It is a Weekly Action Review meeting where your Project team meet to plan, coordinate and discuss projects, as they are happening.  In these meetings, there is heavy interaction between the team members. It opens greater communication to unveil difficulties and problems that are arising or potentially arising.

The term WAR meeting was derived from the military and was used to meet and plan strategies.  It was first used in 1901.  All those involved and responsible to make strategic decisions on movements and enemy locations attended.

This can be effective if used in the right way.  However, used incorrectly can lead to a confrontational style approach between the parties, which is detrimental to the project and team building.

 4.  Take a different perspective

Another strategy you can use is to imagine that the project has already failed and all the attributes that could lead to this failure.

Okay, no one wants to imagine that they have already failed, but playing devils’ advocate can help ensure that you are not blindsided.  It gives you the ability to think outside your usual thinking patterns.  Time to get out of the box. Take a different perspective on the situation.

This can lead to creative insights and highlight possible issues; we might have otherwise overlooked.

How many times do you hear the phrase “We have always done it this way”? This statement leaves no room for creative thinking.

We often follow the same patterns and repeat the same mistakes, over and over on projects. We must choose to think or act differently.  This may take time, mental energy or may force you to change.  But keeping in our comfort zone, even though it might not be working is what Albert Einstein refers to as the “first sign of madness”.  Doing the same thing over and over and hoping to get different results!

5. Research

Research the internet and use case studies of situations that other organisations have faced on their projects.  That leads to significant losses.  Use their unfortunate circumstance, as a learning curve for your organisation. Harsh as it may seem, there are many lessons to learn from others.

In summary,

We cannot always plan for all eventualities.  However, we can proactively try to manage the unknown unknowns and have an action plan in place to try to mitigate the risks.  The important lesson here is to ensure that all parties of the organisation are aware of the available information, and for your organisation to arm your employees with the tools and procedures.  So that they can minimise the risk when issues and challenges arise.

In most cases when challenges arise individuals try to independently overcome these hurdles by often “brushing them under the carpet”.  They often fail to communicate these issues back to the organisation.  This is where the open Quality Culture comes into play.  Being an organisation that promotes and encourages employees to speak out, rather than trying to keep silence.  There may be a new procedure or process or preventative measure that needs to be incorporated into the plan, the next time around.

Adopt a different way of working and change your perspective.  The results will surprise you.

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