Black Swan Event

What is a Black Swan event?

Portraying different types of external change by the nature of their predictability is an established strategic management practice – for example, predictable and inevitable surprises and gray rhinos. Similarly, a Black Swan Event is a metaphor for major impact events that are a complete surprise and are often then rationalized as explainable and predicable. Black swans have three impor- tant characteristics: (1) they are “outliers” mean- ing outside the realm of expectations; (2) they have extreme impact; and (3) although they are outliers, human nature causes us to generate explanations that, after the fact, make the events explainable and even predictable.1 The concept of the black swan comes from the old story that only white swans had been seen, therefore people naturally assumed all swans were white. Then, in Australia explorers saw a black swan. That discovery highlighted the “fragility of our knowledge – one single observation can invali- date a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans. All you need is a single black bird.”2

Consider a global pandemic influenza out- break. Although outbreaks of influenza are not unheard of, pandemics do not happen often and are rightfully considered outliers; for gener- ations they exist outside of normal expectations. If a pandemic occurs, the impact is devastating. For example, the 1918 influenza pandemic is estimated to have killed 50 million or more people world-wide. Should a pandemic happen, scientists would be quick to remind us that such events have occurred throughout human his- tory and some might even say that we should have expected an outbreak since pandemics occurred with some regularity in the past.

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