Last week a regular reader and thoughtful commentator observed:
Black Swans are better ignored until their arrival – cynically, it reduces expectations for preparedness, responsibility and accountability if you do not acknowledge the possible threat.
Given the context of this individual’s commentary over the years I do not take this as cynical. At least in the modern use of cynic: “a person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view.”
Rather, I hear irony: “the mildly sarcastic use of words to imply the opposite of what they normally mean.” I hear an encouragement to greater preparedness, responsibility and accountability.
If I have misheard, s/he — probably he — will correct me.
By definition Black Swans cannot be accurately predicted. As a result they are not well-suited to tactical planning. At least not if plan-execution is your goal. But assiduously working through strategic scenarios with tactical details can be helpful to expose preparedness issues. This is especially the case if tactical planning is consistently framed and facilitated to achieve strategic purposes.
Too often organizations are tempted to treat planning documents as operational algorithms, something that — with enough resources and training — will unfold per specifications and achieve each outcome.
In disaster preparedness, involving black or white swans, this is self-deluding.
Lee Clarke has famously and persuasively called such plans: “Fantasy Documents.” He writes, “When uncertainty about key aspects of a task is high, rationalistic plans and rational-looking planning processes become rationality badges, labels proclaiming that organizations and experts can control things that are, most likely, outside the range of their expertise.”
This is hubris: “an excess of ambition, pride, etc, ultimately causing the transgressor’s ruin.”
Bill, Claire, others: Are there longitudinal studies of the personality types attracted to Emergency Management? Especially planning folks? I am familiar with a study of the Clark County (Las Vegas, NV) Fire Department that I tend to project on the homeland security professions. It found more than three-quarters of CCFD personnel testing with a strong SJ temperament on a Myers-Briggs type instrument.
Those with SJ temperaments are often called “Guardians” or “Protectors”. According to Dr. David Keirsey: “Practical and down-to-earth, Guardians believe in following the rules and cooperating with others. They are not very comfortable winging it or blazing new trails; working steadily within the system is the Guardian way, for in the long run loyalty, discipline, and teamwork get the job done right. Guardians are meticulous about schedules and have a sharp eye for proper procedures. They are cautious about change, even though they know that change can be healthy for an institution. Better to go slowly, they say, and look before you leap.”
This personality type is especially well-suited for many aspects of public safety and disaster response. But Black Swans are seldom tamed by following the rules and working steadily within the system.
Unless — I suggest — the rules and system are developed to anticipate Black Swans, to expect the unexpected and to develop the cognitive and organizational capabilities to critically and creatively engage the unexpected.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb drew on David Hume to popularize our current notion of Black Swans. In his 2012 book Antifragile Taleb tells us:
The biologist and intellectual E. O. Wilson was once asked what represented the most hindrance to the development of children; his answer was the soccer mom… Soccer moms try to eliminate the trial and error, the antifragility, from children’s lives, move them away from the ecological and transform them into nerds working on preexisting (soccer-mom-compatible) maps of reality. Good students, but nerds–that is, they are like computers except slower. Further, they are now totally untrained to handle ambiguity. As a child of civil war, I disbelieve in structured learning… Provided we have the right type of rigor, we need randomness, mess, adventures, uncertainty, self-discovery, near-traumatic episodes, all those things that make life worth living, compared to the structured, fake, and ineffective life of an empty-suit CEO with a preset schedule and an alarm clock.
Rigorous random near-traumatic episodes sound like the sort of “content” that many of the personality types drawn to public safety and emergency management would welcome. This is the kind of learning that encourages us to expect the unexpected and develop the skills to engage the unexpected.
When was the last time you participated in a table-top or exercise that you would describe as rigorous random near-traumatic? Have you ever participated in a planning process that could be described with these terms? Too many planners and trainers and, increasingly, managers (self-styled leaders) are really just soccer-moms in disguise.