Black Swan Challenge

What does a bird have to do with innovation?

The black swan theory was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and covers events that are a surprise (to the observer), have a major impact, but that once they have happened are rationalised as having been foreseeable. Black swan events can be very disruptive, yet afterwards there may be an unreasonable expectation that they should have been predicted (and relevant public sector agencies might be expected to justify why they didn’t…). An example of a black swan event was the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US.

Why is it called a black swan event?

Because once upon a time referring to a black swan meant referring to something very rare or non-existent or impossible – and then black swans were discovered in Australia.

What is a ‘black swan challenge’?

A black swan challenge is an invitation to an agency’s staff to try and identify possible black swan events that:

  • would have a big impact on the work or the operating environment of the agency

  • are not considered or captured in the agency's existing planning processes or scenarios, and

  • after the event, the agency will be seen to have been in a position to do something about it beforehand.

If a black swan is an unpredictable event, how can it be predicted?

You can’t. But agency’s all have strategic and corporate plans and risk assessments that consider (or assume) a certain set of conditions. The black swan challenge is about opening up to some more ‘wild’ or outlying ideas about what could happen, rather than trying to predict what will happen.

Why do it?

Innovation is about trying to change the status quo (hopefully for the better!). Horizon scanning, scenario planning, ‘thinking outside the square’ – whatever you call it, thinking about different possible futures or different ways of how things could be done is a key ingredient for innovation. Thinking about what could be can liberate ideas that do not fit with how things are.

It is also a useful risk management strategy – to test the assumptions of an agency’s planning process and think about what might happen if one (or more) of those assumptions came undone. What if there was one event (like 9/11) that changed the mission of your agency, how it worked, what it was responsible for, and what people expected of it? It might be a positive event, a negative one, or more likely one with both positive and negative aspects. Is your agency going to be resilient to what might come from such a shock?

So hopefully the challenge might both inspire ideas and help spur a conversation about the future, including risks and opportunities. And it should also be fun – to allow people to use their creative juices, their knowledge and personal views to contribute in ways outside of their normal roles!

Okay, sounds good, how do I do it?

The key steps are to identify:

  • how you might collect any ideas put forward

  • how the ideas will be assessed

  • how the submitter of the ‘winning’ (most relevant) black swan will be recognised

  • how information about the challenge (and other Innovation Month events!) will be communicated to staff

  • timeframes.

Then you will need to test whether your agency’s leadership are prepared to support the idea and ‘issue’ the challenge.

Collecting black swans

A suggested means to do so is to see whether you can establish a forum on your agency’s intranet. For instance, these are quite easy to do in Sharepoint. Or your agency might have an existing ideas management system which could be used.

If you can do it electronically, the following are some suggested fields

  • Title

  • Description of the black swan event

  • Name (if not automatically identified through the user’s log-on)

  • Collaborators (if the idea is put forward by a group of people)

  • Suggested strategy/response (for people to outline how the agency might prepare or respond if the event happened)

  • Supporting references (for any links or additional material that people might want to refer to in finding out more about the particular black swan event put forward).

Assessing black swans

How will the most relevant black swan(s) be selected? This will likely vary between agency, and consideration should be given to how many ideas you expect to be put forward.

Is there a group that you can pull together to shortlist the ideas, and put the top selection to your agency head or members of the executive? This might involve someone from your corporate planning/risk management area.

Alternatively, if you have the capability for staff to ‘vote’ for particular black swans, you might leave it to staff to identify the ones that they think are the best or most relevant.


Again, this will vary between agencies, with each having their own recognition schemes. It might include a meet and greet or call from the agency head and a certificate. Or it might be something more imaginative. Whatever it is, it’s important to identify up-front.


If you would like to discuss this with someone before attempting it in your agency, psi [at] (subject: Innovation%20Month%202013%20Events) (please feel free to get in contact with us).