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Not long ago I found a little book with 50 success models, which, according to the writers, will help you with making strategic decisions. (50 succesmodellen, Mikael Krogerus, Roman Tschapler). One of the models (which was not really a model) has a peculiar name: ‘Black Swan Event’. This intrigued me and I wondered how a ‘Black Swan Event’ could help me making strategic decisions. You make them every day and for sure during the progress of your thesis.

Am I going this way or that way, am I going to that Congress or not, shall I alter my questionnaire, my structure, is it helpful to have that conversation or not…..

Listen to what the writers have to say.

Aks yourself three questions: how do we know what we know? Can we derive the future from the past? Why do we never expect the unexpected?

The philosopher Bertrand Russell summarized the answer for these questions in his book The Problems of Philosophy (1912): a chicken that is fed every day, presumes she will be fed every day. She is reinforced in her faith that mankind is good. Nothing in the life of a chicken indicates that she will be slaughtered one day.

Us humans, we have to acknowledge that the most catastrophic events are a complete surprise to us. An example: when the two airplanes flew in the World Trade Center on 9/11 (and I am ignoring the different com-plot theories…..) everybody was in complete shock – there was no indication that this was going to happen.

However, in the weeks, months, years after, we started to have the impression that many events had been indicating this attack.


White swans, black swans

foto via Flickr: courtesy of  Jim Linwood

The Lebanese writer and philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls this phenomenon ‘The Black Swan Event’, which is a reference to the discovery of the black swan. Before the Europeans discovered the black swan in Australia, they were convinced that swans are always white based on millions of observations of swans. All the swans we know are white, so swans are white. It could be science. However, by the discovery of that one black swan, everything turned upside-down: something that was unthinkable became axiomatic.

Black Swan Events have three characteristics:

•  They are extra-ordinary because they are unexpected

•  They have big consequences

•  After the event, human nature will explain the event and make it predictable.

Taleb shows us some examples, like the outbreak of the First World War, the internet, the Arab Spring.

This proposition on the Black Swan Event could query the cause-consequence principle. Or alternatively: one contrasting observation is enough to take down our view of the world. We might be able to predict certain events but we refrain doing that because we close our eyes, it doesn’t fit in our view of the world. We don’t see it coming. And of course in retrospect events can be explained. They will become retroactive prophecies. Conclusion: you have to be prepared for the unexpected.

And now the big question: how does this help your research and help taking strategic decisions? And to make it more personal: which are the black swans, the unexpected events in your life? When did they occur and what did they teach you?

I don’t have an instant answer, but it definitely gave me something to reflect on.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this!


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