Negative knowledge is critical. Focus on what you can’t see.

We admire athletes for their speed, agility, strength and skill.  An amazing hole-in-one golf shot, a basketball dunk over an opponent, or a bicycle kick for a winning soccer goal is easily observed on the television screen or at the site of the action.  What’s not obvious is an athlete may have an underlying medical condition that will end their career in the near future.  It’s not natural for our brains to focus on what we can’t see.  We have to consciously and purposefully think about what is not apparent.

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As we practice project management, project managers should constantly probe for and think about negative knowledge.  Negative knowledge is simply what does not work or what is wrong.  Some argue negative knowledge is more important than positive knowledge.  For instance, a product may endure several tests according to an engineer’s test plan.  The product may pass all the tests with flying colors so the project team is motivated to move the product development cycle forward.  Rarely do people think about what was not tested.  Engineers don’t have the time or budgets to test infinite scenarios but we should not overvalue positive test results.  One solution is to use field testing by putting the product in end users’ hands.   Customers seem to find ways of using products engineers didn’t think of.  Even if an engineer observes a unique user situation, replicating the failure in a lab setting may prove difficult due to equipment limitations.  If a user finds a way to break your product, this information should be weighted more heavily compared to positive lab results.

Another tool to use is the Probability and Risk Matrix.  This matrix forces project managers to think of what-if scenarios but we are limited to a team’s creativity.  A Lessons Learned archive is a good starting point for a list of what could happen but we need to also think about hidden risks.

Companies that sell products with electronics are currently struggling to procure components such as semiconductors due to long lead times and obsolescence.  This is negative knowledge.  A project team should not assume every other component in the product will have a reliable supply chain.  The root causes are complex and volatile so one can be proactive by monitoring part statuses but also by creating alternative designs.  Creating multiple designs is costly but may be worth it to ensure business continuity if supply shortages impact your company.

Focusing on what you can’t see requires a little bit of paranoia.  Product managers usually promote glowing sales forecasts.  Project managers need to consider the possibility that a product may not be well received by the market so a project may need to be canceled or a cost savings plan may be needed to keep going.  If sales trickle in or customers complain online, use this negative knowledge to your advantage.  Don’t rest on your past laurels and hope for a brighter future.  Use the negative information to improve the product.

The Coronavirus has dominated the news headlines the past few years.  Viruses and bacteria cannot be seen or heard with our senses.  They may or may not cause harm to individuals and populations.  Just because we cannot easily detect them, it doesn’t mean viruses and bacteria are not present.  Hidden risks affect project management including human resources management.  A superstar performer on your team may be unhappy and looking for other opportunities.  It’s difficult to know if someone is planning to leave your company, but you can have others trained to step in if someone resigns.

Negative knowledge can be hidden so you have to seek it out.  Constantly ask, “What am I missing?”

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