Embracing the Black Swan — in life and in business

black swan CSC Blogs uncertainty in business

What would you accomplish if you worked through your fear instead of running from it?

Think about that for a minute.

If when confronted with a volatile situation, in life or in business, you chose to focus on adapting, improving, gaining new skills and setting new goals rather than trying to maintain the status quo — what would come as a result?

A few personal experiences come to mind:

In 2002, when I was working with a small team of four to survey new lava flows in Hawaii, the fog rolled in quickly and we lost each other in the haze. We had an agreement, in such an event, to work as a team to stay safe. My two teammates in front stayed put, and the two of us at the back agreed to push forward till we found them, which we did a few frightening minutes later. It was an experience that stays with me today, and definitely forced me to push myself in ways I didn’t know I could.

Some other experiences in which I pushed myself physically and mentally through fear include:

  • Climbing Scotland’s three Munros to raise money for Water Aid and almost collapsing as I hadn’t trained enough.
  • Hiking to the summit of Mauna Loa and experiencing extreme altitude sickness on the way down. I had no choice but to just keep going.
  • Climbing the only mountain range in Western Australia, the Porongerups, struggling due to dizziness and vomiting to get to the top — and not giving up. One of the most hardest climbs I have ever done. What I didn’t know until a month later was that I was already 4 months pregnant with my first baby girl.

These stories came to mind recently while I was reading The Light and Fast Organisation: A New Way of Dealing with Uncertainty by Patrick Hollingworth. The book is about being comfortable with uncertainty and taking risks that make a difference, both in life and in business.

Hollingworth forms his idea around the Black Swan theory, the belief that just because you haven’t seen something (yet) doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. In fact it means it probably does exist. In a world that is more Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) than ever, these Black Swan events happen more frequently. So we need to expect that the unexpected will happen.

(And Black Swans, by the way, do exist. In Perth. This may be one of the rare places in the world when you can see these beautiful creatures, but I can attest that they’re real!)

Hollingworth encourages us to lose the comfort of Stability, Certainty, Simplicity and Clarity and embrace the new way of VUCA — because it’s the way of the future. Many of my peers have done this with great vigor and lead the way in this area. But we all need to be comfortable in this ever-changing world, be willing to improve our life and increase our tolerance of discomfort so we can stretch ourselves and our organizations.

One source of discomfort — and one we in IT know well — is technology. It’s on an exponential growth path, and there are certain risks that go with these rapid changes. We just cannot comprehend what all of this change will bring, and as Holingworth says. “The brain will quickly become overloaded.”

But in this VUCA environment, we can react in two ways: By becoming disengaged, whilst feeling entropy and dissonance. (Hollingworth points out that “Feelings are hard to forget.”) Or we can rewire ourselves to recognize the change and the emotions it brings, embrace, learn and develop our Emotional IQ. Then, when our brain receives knowledge that does not correlate with what we already know, instead of shutting down we will be open to learning new things, developing and transforming ourselves.

As a community of human beings, an organization needs to foster a similar way of thinking. Disengaged and destructive employees become scared by uncertainty. Instead of embracing it, they become like rabbits in the headlights, deny reality and seek to fight or hide from it. By contrast, inspired employees — what Hollingworth calls “destined” — love challenges and seek them out whenever they can, making life and work better for everyone. “Destined workers achieve big things, or if they don’t they will go down fighting,” he says.

Hollingworth admires people and businesses who go, without fuss, out into the unknown, knowing the Black Swan awaits. These individuals and organizations test their own and others’ limits at the edge of what has been done before and often find great success as a result. Hollingworth calls this “the noblest pursuit of all,” and it’s this journey that we should pursue today.

How do you and your organization react to change and volatility? Is your natural inclination fear or embracing the unknown?

Sarah James was ANZ lead for Authentic Leadership in DXC and an advocate for DXC’s Women in Leadership and STEM. Prior to leaving DXC in September 2017, Sarah founded the Empowering Future Leaders blog and was its primary author. With over 15 years of experience in the world of IT, Sarah’s specialty is spatial information and includes integration on projects as diverse as mapping volcanoes in Hawaii to delivering high-tech police vehicles.


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  1. Sarah, great blog but there is a deeper problem. There is a subset of society that can only grok a binary world of good and evil, black and white, up or down, that is the fertile ground for the lunatic fringe. The ***** Campaign here in the US, is all about telling these binary souls whatever they want to hear to the point of supporting both sides of every issue depending on the audience de jour. It’s all undeniably there on archival video.
    The exploiters of this binary subclass know that they need to give these people something to hate and a flag to rally around and a promise that everything will be better and their problems will all magically be solved. Just don’t look behind the curtain, or look for credible ways and means or the whole scam is exposed. ISIS and Hitler both used these hate / fear based recruiting techniques in various ways and found a ready enough audience to exploit, and history knows the results.

    While many of us celebrate the infinite shades and colors beyond binary, we still must filter what we take in or we can get too distracted to be effective. Technology is evolving so fast that some very questionable development is getting the green light and a lot of it won’t stand the test of time. IOT is one area where a lot of stuff is not well thought out before it is pushed onto the store shelves. I for one don’t want a toaster or coffee maker or fridge that talks to me or requires a password to use. For some things this is great, but for others it’s pretty foolish and unlikely to stand the test of time.
    The radar enhanced cars leading to some of the self driving prototypes in another questionable development. We know that Electromagnetic radiation like radar is linked to increased cancer risks, but now we are talking about putting millions of moderately powered emitters into contact with much of the human population with no idea of the long term effects or what is safe. Just because something is technically possible does not mean that it’s a good idea. VBR Sean

    Liked by 1 person

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