Movements must prepare for Black Swans

January 1, 0001

The term “Black Swan” was originated at least in part by Nassim Taleb, and is elaborated in his books Fooled by RandomnessThe Black Swan, and Antifragile.

What is a “Black Swan”? imagine you were a European living in the 1600s. Every swan you’ve ever seen has been white. Then, a ship returns from Australia, carrying something new–a black swan. This is a symbol for something so far outside your experience that you didn’t imagine it at all. Taleb’s argument: history is shaped far more by unpredictable “Black Swan” events than by the drip-drip-drip of everyday life. It’s useless to watch trends or try to make forecasts because the really impactful things cannot be forecasted. There is some evidence for this. But another, more moderate, view (in Superforecasting) is: more swans are “gray” than “black."

  • While they are suprising to many, they are anticipated by some (so not unimaginable)
  • They are highly improbable, and so rare that their probability is hard to estimate
  • They have significant consequences which, once the original swan is seen, can be forecasted (once a terrorist action is seen, the possibility of war can be forecast)
  • They belong to a category of events, and the category’s probability can be estimated even if the specific event cannot (earthquakes, or disease)

Examples of “Gray Swan” events include 9/11 (plots to use planes as weapons against buildings had been stopped prior to 9/11, and scenarios for the use of planes were already being discussed in security circles) and the 2004 Earthquake/Tsunami in Southeast Asia (9.4 quakes are very rare, but the area was a known earthquake zone). Examples of “slow dripping innovations” that likewise change the world are the gradual opening of previously closed countries (China), the invention of the iPhone, and the development and spread of the Internet. Strategies for daily church growth (demographics + conversion) are important for the day-in, day-out drip-drip-drip expansion of the church in the context of life. Yet, while we cannot necessarily prepare for specific Black Swans, movements should be prepared for Black Swans in general. Disruption can be a key forward-driver of movements. In “Antifragile,” Taleb identifies three kinds of organizations:

  • Those that are fragile, and easily shattered by Black Swan events
  • Those that are resilient, and can better survive a Black Swan event in their current form
  • Those that are “antifragile,” by which he means they actually thrive on Black Swan events–such wildcards can be a source of growth.

One of the most notable features of a movement is its great resiliency. A network of house churches can easily shift locations, is not dependent on outside funds, is raising up local leaders (so less damaged by the arrest, assassination, defection or failure of any one leader), etc. But, movements can go further to be antifragile–because in times of great crisis, a movement’s depth of leadership and committed believers can enable it to respond holistically (to be a blessing) and this ministry can be a witness that draws people to Christ. Movements can actually grow more in times of crisis. How might we be prepared? One way might be to consider Matthew 24 as a “category list” of Black Swan events, and think through how the leaders in your movement might be prepared for each item in the list. You can look at existing places where those events happened, and see how they impacted the church. What might your network of churches do if you were faced with such a Black Swan - and how likely is the “category”? (For example, in some places, earthquakes are more likely, while in others they are less likely.) There are several people and organizations than can help you think through and prepare for potential Black Swans. If you’re searching for a connection to help with a particular category of Swans, email me.