The Rumsfeld Hazard

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we do not know we don’t know. —Donald Rumsfeld

(I should note something here: although this blog post is named after a political figure, I generally prefer to avoid political references here. So don’t construe this as being a political message.)

I seem to recall Rumsfeld being very much criticized for the above quote. Now, I’m not saying that the above quote was the appropriate response to the question he was asked. However, there is some truth to what he said. Too often, we think in terms of knowns and unknowns. We treat planning a software project as if it were an obstacle course: overcome this and this obstacle and you’re done!

If this were the case, software development would be a much easier practice. It’s not so much that comparing software development to an obstacle course isn’t an apt analogy. But the obstacle course is more insidious than we think it is. Almost always, the obstacle course looks easy. The problem is that it’s built upon a minefield and you weren’t told about it. Unless you get really lucky, you’re in for a huge surprise.

And don’t think that you can beat this by bringing a mine detector through the second time around. By then, they’ll have replaced the mines with pits of spikes or some other twisted but hidden trap. A software developer has the unenviable job of traversing this obstacle course.

A lot of us will carefully map our plans out, only to have a single mine invalidate the entire plan. That mine is the Rumsfeld Hazard: a problem you didn’t know about, couldn’t have predicted, and thus couldn’t plan for. If there’s one thing that agile development methods help with, it’s dealing with the Rumsfeld hazard. Sure you won’t be any less surprised when the mine goes off, but you won’t have spent so much time making plans that are shattered by one unseen event. It’s a beautiful thing when a software team can roll with the punches this way and plan enough in advance to have a general direction.