Planning for the unexpected was the focus for a client Brainzooming worked with to create a multi-year strategic plan.

Our client’s chief executive had read “Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (affiliate link). Taleb developed the concept of black swan events to describe unexpected occurrences that precipitate dramatic, history-shaping impacts. With black swan events being so disproportionately rare and generating such disproportionately large impacts (think 9-11 and the emergence of the Internet), people are generally blind to anticipating them. These events are ripe though, for people to “figure them out” after they happen, mistakenly thinking the event could have been anticipated.

Our client asked us to help his leadership team anticipate black swan events, even though, almost by definition, you can’t anticipate them.

But hey, it was a client, so we developed a strategic thinking exercise to address his request. Think of it as a glimpse into the Brainzooming strategic thinking exercise R&D lab!

Imagining the Unexpected in a Strategic Thinking Exercise

As we thought about envisioning black swan events in a strategic thinking exercise, we considered a pivotal scene from “Ghostbusters” (affiliate link). There was a scene in the movie where the Ghostbusters are under threat of the first thought that pops into their heads rising up to destroy them. Dan Akroyd’s character ponders the Stay Puft Marshmallow man since this figure from his childhood seems to be the most harmless thing imaginable. Suddenly, a giant Stay Puft Marshmallow man appeared to hunt down the Ghostbusters on top of a Manhattan building.

We drew a comparison between this "Ghostbusters " scene and developing questions to consider potential black swan events.

Like the Stay Puft Marshmallow man, black swan events aren’t independently scary (i.e., a plane is a common item and who would imagine one crashing into a building) or dazzlingly incredible (i.e., a couple of connected computer networks becoming the Internet).

Yet, somehow in both the "Ghostbusters" movie scene and in black swan events, what seems friendly and safe can turn deadly.

Starting with the Benign

Instead of asking questions to identify specific black swans in a strategic thinking exercise, we recommend identifying a list of things in your business seemingly beyond failure - and even as benign as the Stay Puft Marshmallow man.

Our initial list of areas to consider includes:

  • Things currently working well– both inside and outside the organization
  • Strong, dependable areas in the organization and its processes
  • Activities increasing in volume and importance because of growing market demand
  • Overlooked aspects of the business considered no big deal
  • Disproportionately complex processes in the organization
  • The organization’s hidden secrets
  • Formerly problematic business areas whose challenges are long forgotten

Once you've generated a list from these areas, you can look for themes that emerge.

Turning Your Organizational Imagination into Action

The second step is to begin imagining the impact of things from the list you've created blowing up (through extreme failure or success) and whether you would be prepared to respond to these events. This can be a fun strategic destruction exercise for your team.

Across this strategic thinking exercise, you may not have anticipated all or even most of the black swans that might hit; but ideally, you’ll have anticipated a wide range of significant disruptions that could be caused by the black swan events you can’t anticipate.

Do you plan for Black Swan events?

Does (or will) your organization try to plan for black swan events? How do you go about doing it if this is a regular part of your annual planning?

If you’d like some assistance on your next round of strategic planning (whether or not you want to anticipate black swan events), let me know. We’d love to help you imagine your future thoroughly and quickly on the way to better implementation next year. - Mike Brown

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If you’re struggling to generate and implement new ideas, The Brainzooming Group can be the strategic catalyst you need. We will apply our strategic thinking, innovation, and implementation tools on to help you create greater organizational success. Email us at or call 816-509-5320 to learn how we can help you figure out how to work around your innovation challenges.

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