I don’t know if this is the proper place for this question, but here goes.

I often find myself in a situation where stakeholders ask how much time remains on a given technical task. The answer to this question can sometimes be difficult to answer when you are working in a new field or on some troubling task that keeps throwing problems at you. Typically I cannot say how many issues remain, because when I solve one problem, the next problem reveals itself, obscured by the first one. So my question is if there is an established term for these chained problems that prohibit you from having a total picture until you have worked your way through all the problems. I want to be able to articulate this short and precisely which you can see I’m obviously having trouble doing 😂

/Chris L

1 Answer 1


The source of all risks is uncertainty, i.e., what we don't know. There are three types: 1) aleatory (irreducible); 2) epistemic (reducible); and 3) ontological (complete ignorance). Aleatory risks--known known unknowns--are observable, such as process variability you can measure, and driven by random variables. You handle them with contingency. Epistemic risks--known unknowns--are predictable unknowns and you handle them by getting smarter about the uncertainty, i.e., gaining knowledge. Can't do anything about ontological risks--unknowns unknowns--except being surprised.

You're describing the 3rd driver of risks in that you and your team seem to be unable to predict the problems you are facing and are constantly being surprised. The question you need to ask is, are the problems you are facing truly unknown unknowns, or is the problem with your team, either because your team is wholly ill-equipped to be doing the work you're doing or you have a nonexistent risk management capability? I suspect it is not because your team is truly ignorant but that you have not created a reasonably performing risk capability on your project. I would not attempt to articulate what you are experiencing but, instead, find yourself a competent risk manager and build this capability for your project.

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