In every project the early decisions are likely to be the most significant. Unfortunately they are being made when the knowledge is at the lowest about that particular project. These decisions raise the risk level significantly and countless academic studies show this. A recent one (only available in Swedish) has studied 600 change orders in 12 different construction projects in Sweden and the conclusion is clear: more than 80% of the change orders can be traced to early decisions where knowledge gaps were present in different forms .
If the above seems vague and abstract, here is a simple illustrative example. You want to change the countertop in your kitchen. Early decision: material of the new countertop. You want granite. So you simply make the decision and place an order. Assuming it will be a simple swap, old for new. Done. If your reaction is “that sounds about right”, you can stop reading. Though, honestly, you should continue for your own sake. If your reaction is “who in their right mind would do this without first checking cost, availability, the maximum weight that current cabinets can support, placement of cut-outs” and so on. Continue reading, because I have some practical tricks to share.
Tested and tried in several industries and hundreds of projects
The methodology below has been tested in several industries and in hundreds of projects. I have personally applied it in the design phases of both automotive as well construction projects. It is a further development of what some Lean literature refers to as “knowledge gap closure”.
The background is simple: there are things you know are unknown (explicit knowledge gaps) and there are things that you don’t know are unknown (tacit knowledge gaps).
Explicit knowledge gaps are explored by a moderated dialogue. Tacit knowledge gaps are discovered by a moderated dialogue. So the question is: what is the dialogue and how do you moderate it?
1. Perform an early workshop to identify knowledge gaps
Most knowledge gaps typically fall into following categories:
A. Knowledge gaps regarding concepts
Countertop project example: what is the cost, availability, maximal cut-outs for granite (as opposed to some other material), type of granite etc.
B. Knowledge gaps regarding constraints
Countertop project example: what is the maximum strength of the cabinets, what are the logistical constraints affecting the abilities to install a granite slab of a certain dimension or must it be cut into several pieces?
C. Knowledge gaps regarding customers needs
Countertop project example: what are the reasons for why granite is desired and must it be granite? If it is not fully clear why granite is desired it will be hard to consider alternatives if barriers arise.
The categories are simply a help for moderating the dialogue and help the team to think. It is not necessarily to perfectly classify them. The more knowledgeable and competent people you have in the team, the better will your knowledge gaps be. “Better” in the sense that they will be clear and also it will be clear what is needed for their closing. And speaking of clarity: knowledge gaps are best expressed as questions. Questions simply stimulate dialogue better.
2. Sequence and prioritise
Try to find a sequence, or a level of priority among the knowledge gaps. Depending on the project there will be a more or less clear and logical path of which knowledge gaps should precede which and which can be worked on in parallel.
3. For each knowledge gap: balance between being right and being quick
This is by far the trickiest thing that requires active moderation. There are people who just want to make a decision in order to feel progress. They can downplay (or even ignore) that there are lots of assumptions and risks. Then there are people who feel that no amount of knowledge and data is enough to confidently make a decision (sometimes referred to as “analysis paralysis”).
Both types of people are likely to be in the team. There are no silver bullets when it comes to this trade-off but here are a few practical questions to help finding a balance:
- What is the lowest level knowledge needed to make progress on a decision? Maybe you will not close the knowledge gap altogether but you will be able to move your decision-making forward.
- What is the cheapest way of acquiring the knowledge needed? Does it have to be first-hand primary data from measurements or can some qualified estimations be made complemented with easily accessible secondary data? Can a few hours be bought with an expert? Can a question be asked to a similar project?
This step requires a post of it’s own as I have further interesting practical examples and recommendations to share that can help in managing this trade-off.
4. Secure ownership and deadline
To close knowledge gaps means that there will be tasks and deliveries that someone has to own. Make sure to have a clear owner and deadline for those. This is of course not unique to knowledge gaps but simply good project management practice.
5. Rinse and repeat - keep the knowledge engine running
As the project progresses and initial knowledge gaps get closed, new knowledge gaps arise in an iterative fashion until all gaps are either closed or considered as no longer relevant. Actually, even if you are managing your project without explicitly managing knowledge gaps, they often make up the “scene” for tasks to be done in a project anyway. A task to e.g. generate data through calculations is often triggered by a knowledge gap. The priority of that knowledge gap sets the direct priority of the task. Managing knowledge gaps will not only make your project more lean but also agile as it provides a practical approach to scope and prioritises iterations with the right dialogues.
(1) Johnsson, K. and Casspe Nyman, H. (2019) "Changes and additional works - Causes, effects and solutions", Lund University, Sweden