Given today’s events in Brussels, this seems like a good time to revisit the issue of “surprise.” Last year I gave a talk to the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies (slides below), and in it the organizers asked me to emphasize the issue of black swans. The “black swan” was restored to modern fame by Nassim Taleb in his book, The Black Swan, in which Taleb talks about those low probability but high impact events that we often fail to consider – to our detriment.
As you will see in the slides, I featured three types of surprises for the audience. These definitions may differ somewhat from others used in foresight and risk communities, but for most purposes I think my definitions provide a good set of categories, distinct from each other, to consider when planning.
- Blind Spots: places where you’re not looking. These are created around our assumptions and around our perceptual filters, i.e. how we unconsciously ignore some signals around us and pick up on others. We all have blind spots; the point is to keep looking for them.
- Black Swans: these are those low probability, high impact events. They may be so unlikely that you discount the very possibility, but they could happen and if they did you would be sunk. For our purposes, we treat black swans as things that happen within your domain, i.e. within the issue you’re examining.
- Wild Cards: random events, external to your domain. The term wild cards is thrown around a lot, and often conflated with black swans, but the two are different and should be kept separate. A wild card is essentially something that comes from outside your domain, and something that you could not be expected to have anticipated.
All three of these produce surprises for us, frustrating our attempts at precise anticipation of the future and disrupting our plans. Ultimately, we have to recognize that surprises – good and bad – are an inescapable fact of life.
The good news is that, with a solid foresight and planning process, and with a focus on discussing potential surprises, every organization can do better with anticipating – and preparing for – surprises.
The Black Swan, by Nassim Taleb