Black Swans ARE the New Normal

By David Livingston

Black swan (noun) – an unpredictable or unforeseen event, typically one with extreme consequences.

"the bank industry's vulnerability to black swans"

Skyrocketing inflation, soaring oil prices, horrific war in the Ukraine, a heart-wrenching refugee crisis, record flooding in Brisbane for the second time in a decade, the emergence of yet a new variant of COVID-19… perhaps the most shocking thing is that we continue to be shocked.

Leaders and organizations move from crisis to crisis with an underlying, almost subconscious belief that we just need to survive this latest issue and then things will settle down and we’ll be able to focus on our strategy. Of course, that moment of peace never materializes, and our long-term initiatives become hijacked by the next existential challenge. This approach is unsustainable from a strategic perspective and an emotional perspective.

When you allow the urgent to eclipse the important week after week, you are sending the signal that there is no real plan, the stated priorities are artificial, and you are unreliable as a leader. It’s harsh, but true and it’s a recipe for poor morale and mass attrition. No one wants to stay on a ship that’s taking on water with a panicky Captain at the helm.

The answer isn’t to stubbornly bury your head in the sand, stay the course, and ignore the upheaval that surrounds your organization and your people. The answer is to adopt a new, more resilient approach.

SHIFT THE STORY

During an informal interview with my boss, General Stan McChrystal, US President Barak Obama said that one of the most critical functions he played as president was “Chief Storyteller.” It was essential that he shaped the story the American people, and the world, told about us as a country.

It is time for you to stop passively letting your story be shaped by circumstance. Reiterate where you are going as an organization, why you are going there, how you will get there, and what role your people will play in getting us there together. Contextualize the current challenges as part of the journey. Every epic tale has dark moments that call for brave individuals to take decisive action and if you begin proactively shaping that tale, your people will rise to the moment.

PRIORITIZE RUTHLESSLY

Most of us espouse an aspirational list of priorities. We don’t say it out loud, but it’s the list of things we ought to do and intend to do until the thunderheads roll in overhead. In that moment, we resort to our real list of priorities, doing the essential tasks to survive the storm. The problem is that this inconsistent prioritization wreaks havoc on our people – they can’t figure out what really matters and that paralyzes them from taking action when you need them most to be decisive.

It is time for you to make one single list of priorities that applies on sunny days and when then storm clouds blow in. The irony is that this ruthless prioritization will not only make you better in the midst of crisis, but it will actually help the organization be more focused and efficient when things are less tumultuous. Keep the list short. Use tangible verbs. Put it in writing. And keep saying it until everyone in the organization can repeat it verbatim.

BUILD IN BUFFER

There’s an old adage in the military, “two is one and one is none.” If you do not build in extra time, extra resources, and extra personnel, not only are you setting up your organization for failure, but you are also creating the conditions for burnout. We have long lauded “just-in-time” structures that maximize efficiency, particularly in our supply chains, but the last 2 years have clearly demonstrated the fragility of that model during crises.

This isn’t a license to encourage a bloated workforce or wasteful spending. Instead, thoughtfully consider where are my singular points of failure and where are my LIMFACs (limiting factors). Strengthen the organization’s resilience capacity by building in extra time and personnel around those two areas. Next, identify organizational “surge protectors” – resources in the organization that can be redistributed or redeployed as new challenges present themselves. Proactively identifying these surge protectors will allow you to react to crises more rapidly, while still maintaining the necessary focus on the long-term health of the organization.

The next Black Swan event is right around the corner. It may come in the form of a massive economic recession, an escalation of hostilities in Europe, or a new spike in a deadly coronavirus. It may also come in the form of a new economic boom from innovative monetary policies, new medical breakthroughs as a result of RNA advances, or a new period of worldwide peace and prosperity that comes from a global community united against oppression. In either case, Black Swans will continue to appear and those leaders who adopt a resilient approach will be ready.

David Livingston

Managing Partner, McChrystal Academy

David Livingston leads a team of subject matter experts, learning designers, and dynamic facilitators who develop and deliver custom learning courses and programs that leverage a variety of experiential learning methods to drive individual growth and higher performance for teams and organizations.

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