Unknown Unknowns in Innovative Projects: Early Signs Sensemaking

Abstract This study aims to understand early signs’ sensemaking relevance to identifying unknown unknowns on innovative projects. When managing these projects, early signs of changes in the environment, combined with a sensemaking process, can help identify them prior to their occurrence and mitigate unwanted effects of these uncertainties. To this end, we conducted a field research to assess 16 projects, totaling 35 events representative of this kind of uncertainty. Based on in-depth interviews, we performed an initial qualitative analysis, and then applied non-parametric statistical tests. Early signs perception in cases where external factors may cause the occurrence of unknown unknowns show that this perception and the search for information are relevant to identifying unk unks. Furthermore, some biases, such as overconfidence and unrealistic optimism, can hinder it. There was a high prevalence of project managers detecting early signs of change in their projects at the beginning of the project. However, the majority of perceived early signs can be considered to be the first symptoms of a problem. Thus, as a contribution, we suggest: learning processes, which can provide sensemaking for early signs in unknown unknowns; project managers stimulating their team to be alert to environmental changes that may affect the project; and discussion of early signs perceived by the team during stakeholder management.