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Black Swans (No, Not the Movie)

by Doug Boebinger, MS, PMP®

A Black Swan

People in “old world” Europe always thought that swans were white.  All the swans they had ever seen were white, there was no evidence otherwise that swans were only colored white.  Therefore, all swans were white.

In 1697, explorers discovered Australia.  There they discovered black swans.  No one had seen a black swan until then.  That single event changed the entire world’s perspective on swans – they come in white and black.

Since then, “Black Swan” became a term used to describe something that was once thought to be impossible.

What do the following events have in common?

  • Original Apple computer
  • Google
  • Terrorist attacks on Sept 11, 2001
  • Facebook
  • You Tube
  • Twitter
  • Global financial meltdown
  • Earthquake and tsunami in Japan
  • Massive tornado damage affecting various areas of the United States
  • The COVID-19 pandemic

They are all Black Swan events – they changed the world.  No one thought them possible, but they happened and the world will never be the same.

The book “The Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb explores these events in detail.

In his book, Taleb indicates that Black Swans have three attributes:

  • Outlier – Lies outside the realm of regular expectations.  Nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility
  • Extreme impact
  • Retrospective predictability – Human nature makes us create explanations for its occurrence after the fact. Thus making it explainable and predictable – retrospectively.

Traditional Project Risk Management works well for the risk events we know about.

Black Swans look at the extremely low probability – extremely high impact risk events.

How to deal with Black Swan events?  The Boy Scouts have it right – “Be Prepared”

The three mantras for surviving Black Swans events are:

  • Planning, Planning, Planning
  • Training, Training, Training
  • Contingencies, Contingencies, Contingencies

Now, when was the last time I backed up my computer… cuz that puff of black smoke from the back of the computer doesn’t look good!!

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