There are many different lists of reasons why projects fail. Typically they include 8-12 reasons including sponsorship, governance, risk management, poor strategic alignment and even the wrong attitude. However, I wonder if there is an nth reason?

Projects, being about change, carry uncertainty. Even with the best planning, we will only really understand the finest detail of the solution as we go through the implementation, operate and troubleshoot it. This is never more true than of complex projects, with multiple streams and the integration of equipment, solutions and systems from multiple partners. We can pour over specifications, do reference site visits and process mapping, however, there comes a point where we have to accept some risk and move forward to actually deliver a solution.

Almost always, there remains a gap between what we understand will be delivered and is required to do to implement it, versus reality. The issue is we don’t know there is a gap. This isn’t as simple as tightening-up specifications or contracts. In summary we are ignorant. Using Donald Rumsfeld’s words, we have “unknown unknowns”.

The purist may argue that unknown unknowns, should appear as a catch-all on the risk register; risks plans and actions should always be specific, but with unknown unknowns, we can’t be specific, else they’d be “knows”.
Unknown unknowns are a major source of risk. We should constantly be striving to uncovering them. We can at least then make assumptions and mitigations. The project governance should pay attention to this area; where and when will the curve-balls come? This is difficult because all we can do is ask “what don’t we know?” or “what have we missed?” This question is so intangible it is invariably met with silence, for obvious reasons. But, experience shows unknown unkowns exist.

So what’s the solution?
• A constant review of the dependencies, processes and specifications
• A critique of every single component, in isolation and in the context of its handshakes with other components
• Integration of partners solutions
• Head the advice and warnings of practitioners and vendors who will speak from experience about the detail and the less obvious considerations, often outside of their direct remit
• Assurance to bring challenge, experience and a different perspective

So perhaps, another trick of the governance organisation is the ability to juggle invisible balls that have the potential to become very visible.