The Black Swan and Me
Let me begin by telling you that the words “change management” are an oxymoron that Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of The Black Swan (2007), would roll his eyes at. His belief is “that in spite of our progress and the growth in knowledge, or perhaps because of such progress and growth, the future will be increasingly less predictable.” The “increasingly” may very well be exponential.
Look at the “progress” of technology from the invention of moveable metal type and the Gutenberg Bible (1455) to today. In the span of over 500 years humanity has been transformed. Then consider that early civilizations arose first in Lower Mesopotamia (3000 BCE), so human civilization is a little over 5,000 years old. And the human species, or Homo sapiens, emerged some 300,000 to 200,000 years ago. Talk about your hockey stick! In my lifetime I have seen modern technology come and go. For example, the fax machine was replaced by email, expensive lens cameras by smart phones, the “brick” suitcase cell phone by the smart phone, radio was replaced by television, television went from an 8 inch screen to 86 inch, and Main Street was replaced by shopping malls and factory outlets, and were all replaced by Amazon. Soon it will be bit coin, delivery drones, self-driving cars, labor robots and artificial intelligence. The list is as endless as the imagination of science fiction writers. And yet some commodities remain seemingly the same such as gold. Seemingly. My advice? Don’t buy gold. The alchemist’s dream is one experiment away.
There are two type of change events. One is societal and the other is natural. The attack on the Twin Towers and the Chernobyl meltdown are examples of a major societal change events. Examples of natural change events could a tsunami, an earthquake or a volcanic eruption. We are currently undergoing a hybrid event. The coronavirus pandemic is a disease that could be considered natural, but it is said to have be released accidental from a Wuhan, China laboratory.
The latter is a good example of a failure to be prepared for and therefor managed by what was logically to be expected -- but wasn’t prepared for. We humans suffer from two serious psychological problems. Those are confirmation bias and rationalization.
I read The Black Swan twice. And both time my eyes glazed over. My short coming, if it is one, is that I don’t understand probability and statistics. I was exposed to it several times. I took the class for my masters degree, for my doctorate studies and for my ex-wife’s degree. And in the end my eyes glazed over. In Taleb’s book on page 297 there is a section titled “The End.” And in it he says, “everything palls in front of the following metaphysical consideration.” And then he tells me what I already knew. He says “Imagine a speck of dust next to a planet a billion times the size of the earth. The speck of dust represents the odds of you being born… remember that you are the Black Swan.” We are black swans because we are humans and not a statistic.
My own metaphysical analogy has to do with a Rubik Cube. I had a computer technician come to my house to work on my computer. As he was waiting for a software download, he picked up my 8-year old daughter’s Rubik Cube. He bragged that as a boy he could complete it in a few minutes. So, he picked it up and started playing with it to demonstrate his prowess. After 15 minutes he started cussing. And then he looked at me and peeled off one of the colored square’s vinyl covers. “She cheated,” he said. I had to laugh. No, she thought outside the box. The lesson here is that my technician friend expected to repeat what had always done in the past (confirmation bias). However, he could not anticipate (rationalize) the mind of an 8-year old Black Swan who did not understand cheating.
Life is no a matter of physics or mathematics. Yes 2 plus 2 always equals 4. And Newton’s Law of Motion will always hold true. However, societal and natural events cannot be predicted. They can only be prepared for.