Two Wrongs

Black Swans in a Permacrisis

Black Swans in a Permacrisis

A little while ago I was attending a monthly meeting with the management of a client, when the ceo of that company presented a slide containing just one question.

What are the black swans in a permacrisis?

The ceo read the question from the slide, and explained that we are looking at a new world out there, with different risks than before, and it’s worth considering what those are. The room went silent for a little while, and then the ceo said something to the effect of “Food for thought!” and moved on to the next slide.

I wasn’t in a position to speak up at that meeting, but the question reveals a common misunderstanding, namely that black swans are just unlikely events.

In contrast to unlikely events, black swans are not something we can predict by simply trying harder to imagine future scenarios. Anything we have been able to imagine is, by definition, a white swan. Black swans are specifically those things we have been unable to imagine until they happen. Black swans are not merely unlikely before they happen, they are literally unthinkable – they’re just not part of our world view.1 I don’t remember if I picked this up first in The Black Swan or Antifragile – both by Taleb.

Asking what the black swans are is a meaningless question, because any answer is a white swan.

A better way to phrase the question would have been

What opportunities are offered in a permacrisis that allow us to build an organisation that is not fragile to black swans?

This question is rather dense in meanings2 Is permacrisis even a meaningful word? How do I recognise opportunities? What is fragility and how is it different from robustness and anti-fragility? Etc. but I want to draw attention particularly to the difference of focus here! We’re not asking for specific things to watch out for, we are asking about processes that allow us to handle the unknown things as they occur.

Ironically, for all their other qualities, the ceo that asked the question likes to speak uninterrupted and uncontradicted, and has a strong affinity for waterfall-style software project planning. Both of those are things that make black swans difficult to handle.