The Upside Of Black Swans

The Coronavirus is a Black Swan:

The black swan theory or theory of black swan events is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. The term is based on an ancient saying that presumed black swans did not exist – a saying that became reinterpreted to teach a different lesson after black swans were discovered in the wild.

While one is never fully prepared for an event like this, a focus on resilience over planning is always a good thing.

A while back, I wrote about one of the main reasons why I moved to Silicon Valley – the value of resilience over planning. The trigger was an article I read in a now-defunct magazine called Forbes ASAP, written by Virginia Postrel. In this article, she discussed the differences between the east coast and the west coast, likening it to the differences between dealing with an earthquake and a snowstorm. You can read the original article post here, but I can summarize it in one sentence:

Resilience wins over planning in a rapidly changing world.

This current crisis is a case in point – those individuals and companies which were designed from the ground up for resilience are faring much better than those designed around planning. Those of us who already have a support structure built around working from home, familiarity with remote work, and the plethora of video and teleconferencing solutions are further ahead. Of course, we are all much better off now, with many roles able to continue remotely with ubiquitous and rapid internet access then we were even ten years ago. The number of tools available and the quality of the equipment (video and audio) allows us to continue operations nearly seamlessly.

Unfortunately, this crisis has quickly shown that black swans rock operations at even the most forward-thinking companies. Not long ago, we saw a backlash against remote work and telecommuting. Both the former CEOs of Yahoo! and IBM all called for a reversal of progressive telecommute policies. Despite the advancement of technology, which would allow us to eliminate the most hated time-waster of commuting, we persist in thinking that in-person interaction is the most effective.

But what if it wasn’t? What if non-in-person interactions were better? What if our penchant for in-person interaction is simply a leftover from our days as Homo Sapiens, as opposed to Homo Nexus – the always-connected humans which we are evolving into today? What if we could improve our interactions beyond in-person?

But I digress.

The Coronavirus, like many other black swans, causes much confusion and disorder while we are in the middle of them. However, as we are a learning species, we are continually looking for ways to improve our lives. Even something as harmful as 9/11, or the Coronavirus, will create innovations and cultural changes that can improve both humanity and our organizations.

We should be asking ourselves:

  • How can be become resilient against whatever comes our way?
  • How can we improve the non-in-person experience to leapfrog the in-person experience?
  • How can we eliminate the things humans hate doing – like commuting – and do more of the things people love to do?

The question is – will we learn to become more resilient during this crisis so that when the next black swan occurs, we will be more ready to bounce back? Will we finally embrace remote work and remote interaction and honestly buy into it over in-person interaction – closing up office buildings and campuses and moving everything that can be remote to remote? Will we work to improve the remote experience to make it even better than the in-person experience?

Or will we just let this play out – learn no lessons – and just go back to the way things were before?

History has shown that not everyone learns the lessons that black swans teach us. Will you?


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