Articles 2 min read

The Black Swans of Change by Jacqui Alexander

Recently I shared my six principles of delivering change at pace – in this post, I focus on the second principle – ‘Take a step by step approach’ but what has that got to do with black swans?

The origin of the phrase ‘black swan’ derives from long ago in the early second century when Roman poet Juvenal characterised it as a rare bird in the lands and very much like a black swan’ – why? Well, when it was coined it was assumed not to exist.  As we fast forward a few hundred years, we find that the phrase black swan had become a common expression in 16th Century London as a statement of impossibility.  The presumption was simple – all swans must be white because all historical records of swans reported that they had white feathers.  At that time, a black swan was something considered impossible or non-existent.

So imagine the surprise of Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh who was the first European to see a black swan on his expedition to Western Australia in 1697!  The term subsequently changed to convey the idea that a perceived impossibility might later be disproven!

I can empathise with Willem completely, for some 300 years later I too found myself in Western Australia and saw a black swan for the first time in my life and, not just one, but over 50!  My local guide took great delight at the look of sheer awe on my face – for her black swans were the norm, not the exception!

So why do we need to be open to the black swans of change?  Well, the importance of this metaphor lies in the fragile belief that we can predict the future based on our assumptions from the past.  In a rapidly changing business environment within a dynamically changing world, a limiting belief that we can predict what lies ahead now seems flawed.  And what does this mean for those multi-year, multi-million pound change programmes with detailed plans?  Are they relevant or are we fooling ourselves?  Locking down long-term rigid plans and deadlines can mean we lose sight of what’s right in front of us, the unexpected black swans on our journey.  Black swans serve to challenge our thinking and assumptions, to unpick the logic of its system and reasoning.

So how do we navigate a different path, a path that is both intentional and adaptable to the black swans you may encounter?  Here are some of the things that I’ve have learned so far:

  1. Take a step by step approach – taking smaller, time-bound steps (of 3 or 6mths at a time) will allow you to adapt your change to stay in step with the ever-changing business and customer context.  Small steps can make a big difference.
  2. Focus on the vital few things you can change now–if you assume there will be black swan incidents ahead then look at what is most important to change now in pursuit of the change you want to cause.  Act your way into a new way of thinking vs think your way into a new way of acting!
  3. Make a continuous review and learning part of your regular practice – beware of getting stuck and wedded to a fixed way of doing things – be open and emergent, notice what works and what doesn’t and be deeply curious about the difference that makes the difference.
  4. Accept that black swans can appear at any time – accepting that what seems impossible today can occur tomorrow will make you more resourceful and able to respond…indeed why not have a brainstorm with your team on what your assumptions are and rigorously challenge them.

As Martin Luther King Jr said ‘You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step’ – so what is your first step in addressing the most important things that you can change, right now, and that may lead you towards where you want to be?

If you missed it, you can access Step 1 here, or Jacqui’s video on all 6 steps here.

The Business Transformation Network has posted this article in partnership with ChangePace Consulting.

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