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  • Writer's pictureBill Holmes

Is “unknowable-unknown” a new PMI® term, or a typo?

Another new term, no real value!

“But details that seemed unknowable are now coming to light after thousands of years.” Brian Handwerk

“For which of these are the answers unknowable? We cannot prove scientific unknowability. That can only be done in mathematics.” Joseph Traub

I was preparing for a PMP® Exam Prep class that I am scheduled to teach, and I came across a phrase that was new to me. It is on page 399 of the PMBOK® under the topic of “Project Resilience”. The sentence was “The existence of emergent risk is becoming clear, with a growing awareness of so-called unknowable-unknowns.”


In classic risk management, you can group risk types into 4 broad categories: known/known, known/unknown, unknown/known, unknown/unknown. Are we adding a fifth category, unknowable-unknowns? I have never heard of that before, so my initial reaction was that it is a typo. But I wasn’t sure.

So I went to my Linked-In colleagues. I have thousands of contacts, so surely someone would have insight into this new risk category! It was a lively conversation (thanks guys!), but no profound insight. The opinions seemed to coalesce around the notion that PMI was adding complexity for complexity sake.

I then went to the internet and searched for “unknowable unknowns”. That search led to sites with discussions about the scientific ability to prove absolute truths, religion and one really weird site about psychopaths. Seriously.

I wondered if I wasn’t specific enough in my search, so I changed the criteria to “unknowable unknown project management risk”. None of the PM sites (which were all at the top) used the term “unknowable”, but I did find a site that referred to the “Cynefin Framework”. What is the Cynefin Framework you might ask? Here is the definition:

“The Cynefin framework (kuh-NEV-in) is a conceptual framework used to aid decision-making. Created in 1999 by Dave Snowden when he worked for IBM Global Services, it has been described as a "sense-making device". Cynefin is a Welsh word for habitat.”

Will we see the Cynefin Framework on the next PMP exam? I certainly hope not...

It is a broad framework, but when applied to Risk Management, it graphs like this:

Project, program, portfolio
More complexity, same value!

While that clearly shows the introduction of the term "unknowable" as a decision making tool, the elusive unknowable-unknown remains hidden deep in the bowels of the internet!

My verdict is that this is a new term, not a typo.

To which I say, so what?

How does this help? When managing a project, is characterizing a risk as unknowable instead of unknown going to change any risk assessment process? No. In fact, a post-mortem of many high profile disasters like the Challenger, Chernobyl and Deep Water Horizon all show that the risks were known but not properly addressed.

In my opinion, the addition of a single reference in the PMBOK to unknowable-unknowns is a clear example of added complexity with no additional value.


My daughter decided to choose a college near our house. What is interesting is that was clearly the right choice from the outset! I went through the finances, her temperament and the logistics, and it was always clear she needed to go to the local school. In spite of that, we flew to schools, did tours and even attended orientation! After all of that, she sat down with my wife and went over the finances, her attitudes about the school and how far away it was… and she decided to stay closer to home. Sigh. At least we got the right outcome!


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