🦢💣 What do black swans, ICT systems, psychology and events have in common?
Unpredictable surprises, causing massive impact, subjecting us all to hindsight bias.
Most people expect all swans to be white because that’s what their experience tells them; a black swan is therefore by definition a surprise. In my experience having worked with various legacy ICT systems across enterprise and government, I can confirm that systems can be just as unpredictable and a surprise as much as people and events of unpredictable great impact.
As ICT postmortems go, the best value is derived from other people’s surprise outages and disasters.
Therefore, a system outage can be considered an unplanned investment. When leveraged to predict and prevent future risks, it may create valuable experiences, save considerable time, headache, and money.
Sometimes you never know what gets left behind after an outage, especially after the carnage of staff redundances in cost-cutting exercises. I’m predicting there will be a lot of ICT project black swans wrapped inside a Schroder’s cat box after the COVID era of redundancies. Watch this space… 🙈🙉🙊 🎁 Surprises just waiting to be unboxed. If you suspect having one of these, I have an ICT black swan crisis team rescue package waiting :-)
Experience trumps genius
I will never forget a Ukrainian developer once explained why he couldn’t get to the bottom of refactoring a legacy system causing random outages. With his Eastern European accent, he said: “Let me try and explain… it’s like the enemy came through the code, ravaged and pillaged then left”…. “no one knows what will be triggered when we start to re-factor, hence the outages in production that cannot be replicated in staging”. I was both disturbed and in tears of laughter at the same time, because I’m pretty sure there was no translation issue. The picture was painted loud and clear. Ok, I didn’t relay it quite in that raw way to the client, and as always added my communication layer and reframed the message, but you can imagine the level of inheritance the teams and stakeholders had to deal with (applied chaos theory worth millions of dollars). 🤦♀️
If it’s your first time running a major ICT restructure or cost-cutting project, you may even get to experience your very own ICT black swan event. After rescuing and salvaging over 50 failing digital projects, one starts to develop the wisdom of hindsight and laughter. And after seeing so many… let’s admit, I can see that we all have a little black swan in us…
THE BLACK SWAN BIOLOGICAL BIRD
The term Black Swan originates from the belief that all swans are white until in 1697 when Dutch explorers led by Willem de Vlamingh became the first Europeans to see black swans, in Western Australia. The term subsequently gave rise to the idea that a perceived impossibility might later be disproven.
A Black Swan (Cygnus atratus) is a large waterbird, a species of swan common in the coastal and wetland areas of southern eastern and western parts of Australia, nesting in swamps and river estuaries. Black swans have special feathers for attracting a mate. I love the fact that, once courtship is complete, they are paired and bonded for life. This is unusual as most other birds raise their young as a pair for one season, but move on to new mates the next.
They hold their neck tall and arched with feathers raised in the aggressive display while it swims with one leg, tucking the other leg above its tail, allowing for ease of direction change as it swims on the water surface and if needed to escape an oncoming predator or to more quickly get to the food. (There are similarities in behavior between the swan and leading a turnaround programme, a story for another time perhaps..)
A BLACK SWAN EVENT
Black Swan Theory: Explains the existence and occurrence of high-impact, hard-to-predict, rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations, and has potentially severe consequences. Nassim Taleb developed this theory to explain the disproportionate effect one event can have on history and civilisation.
The term “Black Swan event” was coined by a finance professor, writer, and former Wall Street trader, Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Just prior to the 2008 GFC, Nassim published his book titled “The Black Swan” (2007). Taleb argued that because black swan events are impossible to predict due to their extreme rarity yet have catastrophic consequences, it is important for people to always assume a black swan event is a possibility, whatever it may be, and to plan accordingly.
3 characteristics of a black swan event
- Unpredictability - It must come as a surprise at least from the point of view of the observer
- Massive Impact! — The impact must be widespread and far-reaching.
- Hindsight bias — After the event, people will argue that it was predictable or “bound to happen”. The exhibition of “hindsight bias,” being proven “predictable” based solely on information learned in hindsight.
Black Swan Event Examples
- The financial crash of 2008 (GFC) — the global banking system house of cards not only collapsed but took the mat from under all of us, taking the entire global population into a recession. In hindsight, a result of poor regulation in banking services, and over indulgences in many unfair trade practices.
- The Internet — was originally a protocol for devices to communicate with each other, then a drastic increase in the number of people using the Internet and that led to a huge increase in the number of Internet-based companies and services.
- 2001 dot.com bubble — internet companies flourished in the span of three years 1997–2000, then the bubble burst into a huge dot-com crash wiping out more than half of the internet-based companies overnight. (NASDAQ wiped out more than 78% of its own composite)
- Bitcoin — until Bitcoin came about, nobody thought that such a currency could exist, let alone flourish. Creating fear and threatening the grips on the global money supply that institutions have forged and their power in today’s systems. In terms of impact, it spawned thousands of cryptocurrencies and gave rise to a side startup industry based on its innovative underlying technology (blockchain). It was then rationalized by hindsight, as bound to happen due to the failing financial structure that lead the world into a financial crisis.
- The 9/11 attacks
- Trump becoming president
- The great recession
- Covid-19 (🤔 debatable depending on which conspiracy theories you follow)
- Exon Valdez oil spill
- some ICT system outages can be considered a black swan event
- some investments can be considered a black swan event
HINDSIGHT LESSON: Learning to expect the unexpected
The hindsight bias prevents us from adequately learning from the past. As human beings, we engage in what is called hindsight bias. This is the tendency to believe that the event was predictable based on knowledge gained after the event occurred. In effect, people unknowingly substitute current knowledge of outcomes into the gaps of knowledge that were present when building earlier expectations of potential events.
FORESIGHT LESSON: Predicting the unpredictable
Prevention of uncertain events is almost impossible to quantify in any meaningful way. The best attempt is to bring creative thinkers or predict with a gaming mentality, and appreciation for insurance psychology and risk management. I have harped on over the years about the value of playing out Zombie Apocalypse and Alien invasion scenarios to test the reflexes of a cat and divergent thinking in random scenarios.
“I’m particularly interested in black swan events: unprecedented suprises that destroy the conventional wisdom about how the world works.” Paolo Bacigalupi (American science fiction and fantasy writer)
BLACK SWAN film and Psychology
The film, Black Swan, a mesmerizing tale depicting a young woman’s tragic journey through her first episode of psychosis, and descent into fear and paranoia. The ballet dancer plays a major role in Swan Lake with a professional ballet company’s production of Swan Lake in New York City.
The pure and intricate “White Swan” leading role, also requires her to portray the seductive and malicious “Black Swan” and draw from the deep well of aggressive, passionate, with dark feelings flowing underneath her obedient, child-like persona. The scenes leap between reality and psychosis, highlighting the first-hand perspective of individuals with psychosis and their interpretation of reality.
Perhaps, next time you see black swans crossing the road… it may be worthwhile ensuring they get there safely.
(Image of the black swans I watched crossing the road that inspired this post)
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