Curing black swan blindness to move from survival to success

By Carl Heise

Hindsight apparently gives us 2020 vision. Hindsight bias makes us think that most things were predictable and could have been avoided. The more far-reaching the impacts of the event, the more energy we spend retracing steps to find solutions to past problems that it is too late to implement.

In his 2007 book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined a term for such situations. A “Black Swan Event” is characterised as being rare, extreme in impact and predictable in retrospect.

The biggest and blackest of swans

In 2020 we face a one of the biggest Black Swans in history: Covid-19. It is impacting the lives of billions of people, threatening their health and their livelihoods. Was it predictable? Of course. Does that make anyone feel any better right now? No.

The Black Swan was widely read in business circles in 2007 and we all felt comforted at our newfound mastery of the ability to anticipate Black Swan events. Except this mastery hasn’t helped; watch any current news bulletin if you need proof.

Part of the complexity of the Covid-19 problem is that it can feel distant and abstract, like it won’t happen to us. This makes it hard to see clearly, hard to measure and define. Facing this open, borderless problem can be overwhelming. Governments and businesses everywhere have struggled to solve this most challenging of problems.

Restoring sight through outcome focus

Clearly, we need to adopt a different approach. We need to shift our focus from the problem we can’t see, to the outcome we can.

The concept of landscape provides a useful metaphor here. A landscape has a depth of field. Nearer landscape has greater detail, farther landscape is indistinct, but clarity improves as we approach it. There is a point past which you cannot see, so you plan a path to that point, and anticipate what the next horizon(s) may be when you reach it.

The following practices will help sharpen your outcome focus and avoid preoccupations with dark-coloured waterfowl.

Practice 1: Doubt
Without falling into the traditional risk management pit of endless detail, it is essential to doubt what we know. Act with certainty and doubt everything. Dynamically assess the value of what you know and what evidence you have. It may be that you need to step sideways to get a clearer view of the landscape.

Practice 2: Look for opportunities amidst the chaos
As I pointed out in my last article, we have been confronting the reality that we now live in a constant state of transition for a long time now [link to past blog]. But it is often hard to break away from daily operations long enough to update strategy and approaches. Take this opportunity to look at alternative ways to achieve your desired outcomes, during the response and beyond.

Practice 3: Questions > Solutions
Learn to love the question not the solution. The two key questions are: Why? And How? Why and how guide you across the problem landscape. Keep asking them. You will find the sure things, even in the most open problem.

At Brooke we are not experts at “what” we are experts at Why? And How? These two questions give us access to authentic, dynamic, actionable solutions to open problems. Because we anchor our design in the Why we can take action with certainty, and change rapidly if required.

In these uncertain times it is important to shift our focus from the problems we can’t see individually, to the outcomes we can see together.