The story of the Black Swan

The phrase "black swan" derives from a Latin expression; its oldest known occurrence is the poet Juvenal's characterisation of something being "rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno" ("a rare bird in the lands, very much like a black swan")

  • A turkey which is fed daily, will quickly accept that "life is good and the hand feeding me belongs to my friend." The longer this goes on for the more natural it feels. After what appears to the turkey to be a long time – and the sense of safety, happiness and confidence is at an all time high – the turkey is in for a surprise. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving something unexpected will happen and the turkey will change its views of the world. The turkey will meet a distant cousin from the world of birds, a black swan dressed up as a common butcher.
  • All historical evidence available to the turkey indicated that a simple linear forecast would be reliable, i.e. more regular meals and more happy days would be coming. The turkey´s problem however was insufficient knowledge of the environment and a catastrophically historical perspective used for its forecasting.

Today, the black swan metaphor coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is commonly used as a surprise event with a significant impact, which in hindsight, is rationalised as both explainable and predictable. Black swans can be of both positive and negative nature, e.g. global events like the Internet and September 11, WWI, the recent abandoning of the Swiss Franc ceiling or more company centric events like FoxMeyer Drugs’ SAP and Pinnacle implementation. BP’s Gulf of Mexico rig explosion and subsequent oil spill is another example of a corporate Black Swan event.

What you want to avoid is being the victim of trouble, which could have been avoided by planning, challenging and stress-testing your plans and in certain cases, acquiring/using external expertise/support. To continue the avian terminology: you want to avoid being the turkey. Yet, most organisations and individuals are guilty of the mistake made by our former friend, the turkey, i.e. blindly relying on linear forecasting.

You usually get just one shot at bringing your product to market in a successful manner.  According to McKinsey, for 85% of pharma launches, the product trajectory is set in the first six months after launch.

One tends to repeat what has been successful in the past, either by us or others, expecting that it will be successful in the future ignoring circumstances may have changed and your sweet spot has moved since your project started.

Do not embark on the final stages of your launch assuming what has been done in the past will necessarily work again. Give your product and organisation the right chance of success and give your plans a final once over with some experienced people who have made the product commercialisation their area of expertise.

We can support you by providing a new set of eyes, a sanity check and unbiased view uncluttered by the excitement of the development or launch …we have been through this many times bringing experience from many products, organisations and markets to help avoid future turkey references.

Black Swan Consulting is there for you



Reference : Taleb, Nassim Nicholas (2007/2010). The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York: Random House and Penguin.