Hide in Plain Sight: The Strategic Challenge of ‘Gray Swans’

Hide in Plain Sight: The Strategic Challenge of ‘Gray Swans’
Honor guards stand at the Pentagon Memorial on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks at the Pentagon, Arlington, VA, Sept. 11, 2011 (AP photo by Charles Dharapak).

For almost a decade now, since the publication of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s brilliant, discursive rumination “The Black Swan,” conventional wisdom has held that the biggest threats to strategy—in national security as well as areas like finance—come from sudden and unexpected events. A black swan, as Taleb named such an event, is at its core both a shock and a surprise. It is an “outlier,” Taleb writes, “as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility.” He goes on to claim that such events are the engines of history. “A small number of Black Swans explain almost everything in our world,” he argues. Social life “is the cumulative effect of a handful of significant shocks.”

There is no question that genuine surprises do crop up and pose a significant challenge to strategists. Taleb was right to focus attention on black swans, and building resilience against unanticipated shocks is a key priority for organizations and nations alike. But in the excitement about this one category of strategic challenge, too little attention has been paid to what ends up being a much more common problem for strategy. This is the black swan’s little cousin: the “gray swan.”

A number of recent crises and calamities, from 9/11 to the 2008 financial meltdown, suggest that the factors that most often upend strategic intent aren’t surprises that no one had anticipated. The much more common problem for strategy and strategic planners comes from risks that can be anticipated and that are discussed, debated and sometimes measured, but which remain fundamentally improbable and for that reason are subsequently disregarded. As national security institutions struggle to deal with the implications of an increasingly complex and unpredictable world, it will be critical to keep this distinction in mind.

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