Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Unknowable-unknowns Vs. Unknown-unknowns in Risk Management with Emergent Risks and Novel Risks

As I frequently interact with project and risk management practitioners, the below two questions on unknowable-unknowns and unknown-unknowns come up. They are quite confusing for many. The existing literature doesn’t help as they are written with complicated language and/or complex explanations. The questions are:

  • What are the differences between Unknowable-unknowns and Unknown-unknowns? 
  • Where does emergent risk actually fit in (in the above context)?

To understand, let’s simplify. 

The Fundamentals

First, let’s understand, what is the difference between unknowable and unknown?

  • Unknown: You really don’t know. It’s definitive. 
  • Unknowable: You are not likely (or unlikely) to know. It’s probabilistic. 

When we say definitive, it’s certain that you don’t know. For example, it’s possible you don’t know some new technologies, design or frameworks.

When we say probabilistic, a chance factor comes in. There is a chance (usually high) that you don’t know. For example, when disruptive technologies start to pervade, you are unlikely to know the impact. 

Simply put:

  • When we say unknown, it means there is a lack of knowledge or untapped knowledge.
  • When we say unknowable, it means there is not only lack of knowledge, but also exploration is not probable. In this case, it’s untappable knowledge. 

Now, let’s see what are emergent risks and novel risks? 

Emergent Risks

As per PMI’s Standard for Risks in Portfolios, Programs and Projects, this is the definition of emergent risks:

“A risk that arises which could not have been identified earlier on.”

I agree with this definition, but not the subsequent explanation of PMI on emergent risks in the context of the unknowable, though I’ve adopted them in my books and courses. In this case, one can say these risks could not be identified because they were unknown at that time, but later on, the risks emerged.

When one says “emerge”, a pattern is forming, but not clear. It’ll emerge. 

Novel Risks

I provide this definition for novel risks:

“A risk that arises which was not probable (improbable) to be identified earlier on.”

Here you can say, these risks were improbable to be determined and later it came-up unexpectedly, hence the term “novel” or completely new – not emerging! 

When one says “novel”, there is no pattern formation at all. It is completely new. 

Also, did you notice the distinction in the definitions?

For an emergent risk, we could not have identified earlier, which can be due to many factors such as lack of knowledge, understanding or considering various scenarios. 

For a novel risk, we have a probability factor coming into play. It was improbable to be identified earlier because exploration of such a risk was improbable. 

Unknown-unknowns Vs. Unknowable-unknowns

Now, let’s see the difference between these two:

  • Unknown-unknowns: You don’t know that you don’t know. This is pure ignorance. Knowledge wise, it’s untapped knowledge. It’s part of the Complex domain.
  • Unknowable-unknowns: You are unlikely to know that you don’t know. This is not pure ignorance. Knowledge wise, it’s untappable knowledge. It’s part of the Chaos domain.

The emergent risks are actually unknown-unknown risks or simply unknown risks, whereas novel risks are actually unknowable-unknown risks or simply unknowable risks. Again, do note that my explanation differs from many, including PMI. The figurative representation is shown below.

I’d also strongly recommend that, you read the followings articles:

Cynefin Framework, Risks and Agile: Known-unknowns, Unknown-unknowns, and Unknowable-unknowns

Risk Classification: Known-knowns, Known-unknowns, Unknown-unknowns, and Unknown-unknowns


Combining all that I've explained:

  • Known-known is conscious knowledge or facts. You know that you know.
  • Known-unknown is conscious ignorance. You know that you don't know.
  • Unknown-unknown means unconscious ignorance. You don't know that you don't know.
  • Unknowable-unknown means unexplorable and unconscious ignorance. You are unlikely know that you don't know.

Another question that comes-up is this: How about Black Swans? Is it related to unknowable-unknowns or unknown-unknowns? To a certain extent, black swans are unknowable-unknowns. Because these result in chaos. More specifically, black swans are distinguisged with their very low probabilities, but catastrphic impact. In other words, black-swans comes with a chance factor (very low), but with tremendous effect (very very high).

If you have understood so far in this article, then you have understood the difference between unknowable-unknowns, unknown-unknowns and the associated risks such as emergent risks and novel risks. 


[1] RMP Live Lessons - Guaranteed Pass or Your Money Back, by Satya Narayan Dash

[2] RMP 30 Contact Hours, with Full Money Back Guarantee, by Satya Narayan Dash

[3] Book - I Want To Be A RMP: The Plain and Simple Way To Be A RMP, Second Edition, by Satya Narayan Dash 

[4] The Standard for Risk Management in Portfolios, Programs and Projects, by Project Management Institute

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