The Laboratory Informatics Experts

Reducing the Unknowns: The Value of Lab Informatics Project Managers

January 12, 2017

Value of Project ManagersOn every project there are things that we know and things that we don’t know. It is the project manager’s responsibility to plan for and manage both the knowns and the unknowns in order to deliver the project on-time, within budget, and meeting specifications.  But there is another unknown out there that must also be managed, the “unknown unknown”.  Donald Rumsfeld, the former secretary of defense, famously put it as follows:

“….as we know, there are known knowns; these are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Rumsfeld’s statement, which at first glance seems nonsensical, actually contains great insight and wisdom for both battlefield commanders and project managers.  Not heeding these wise words can lead to a battlefield defeat or a failed project.  How so?  Let’s examine each of the (un)knowns in turn.

Known Knowns

The more we know before we start a project, the better our initial planning will be and the lower the risk of project failure. That is, the more known knowns we know, the greater the chance of project success. This is, of course, intuitively obvious.

In a previous blog, “How to Choose a LIMS Consultantwe explained that demonstrable experience and expertise in your specific industry, laboratory environment, and informatics solution(s) is required in your lab informatics project manager.  To summarize that blog, in addition to foundational knowledge (e.g., PMI), experience (managed similar projects before), and possibly certification (e.g., PMP) in project management, the following domain knowledge is also required:

  1. Industry (e.g., Mining, Petrochemical, Pharmaceutical, Biotech, Food and Beverage, Medical Devices, etc.)
  2. Lab Type (e.g., R&D, QA/QC, Clinical, Contract, Analytical Services, etc.)
  3. Lab Informatics Solution (e.g., LIMS, ELN, CDS, SDMS, Vendor Specific)
  4. Regulatory (e.g., FDA, 21CFRPart 11, GxP, etc.)

The Lab Informatics Project Manager, equipped with the aforementioned knowledge and experience, brings these additional domain specific known knowns to the planning phase of the project.  This increase in known knowns results in a more realistic initial project plan and reduces the pool of unknowns that must be managed.

Known Unknowns

There are some things that we can reasonably expect to occur but the impact to the informatics project is currently unknown. These are the known unknowns.  The role of the project manager is to transform these known unknowns into known knowns as early in the project as possible.  Some of these known unknowns are already known to the lab informatics project manager prior to the start of the project through their domain knowledge and past experience, as shown above.  Others can be identified during a project risk assessment. Both can be mitigated against through the development and potential execution of risk mitigation plans.

The extent to which these risks (known unknowns) are identified is determined by the knowledge and experience (the known knowns) of the lab informatics project manager and the planning team.  But, to a generic project manager, without the specific domain knowledge, many of these known unknowns are likely to be unknown unknowns.

Unknown Unknowns

Finally there are unknown unknowns.  As Rumsfeld put it “But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know”.  These can wreak havoc on a lab informatics project and can be catastrophic. By their very nature, they cannot be foreseen but have an annoying habit of appearing during the most critical phase of a project.  Unknown unknowns also have a magical quality about them. As soon as they appear they instantly transform into known unknowns that must be rapidly managed in order to prevent project slippage or overrun.

The lab informatics project manager will have already encountered some of these unknown unknowns through the performance of similar projects.  To them, these unknown unknowns will be known unknowns if not already further transformed into known knowns.  Thus through the involvement of a lab informatics project manager, the pool of unknown unknowns is also reduced.

The Value

To summarize, experienced lab informatics project managers will bring deep and broad domain knowledge and experience to your project team from working on similar projects.  They will have experienced a number of the typical challenges particular to lab informatics projects and will plan accordingly.  In short, by reducing the unknowns (both known and unknown) and by increasing the number of known knowns, the lab informatics project manager will increase the likelihood that the project will be completed on time, within budget, satisfying all the business requirements, and that the new system will be adopted by all.


What unknown unknowns have you experienced on your lab informatics projects?  What was their impact?  Was your project manager an experienced lab informatics project manager?

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