Saturday, 12 May 2007

The Black Swan

It often feels that planning likes to assume the role of being responsible for great advertising. The truth is more often than not, it helps to improve the efficacy of advertising which is a different thing all together. For evidence of this you can take a look at the next 50 advertisements you see starting from right now. Did anything blow you away about those highly targeted and planning intense executions (comments below)? There's a disconnect there and it's largely resolved by taking a closer look between life as we imagine it and life as it really is.

Black Swans really is an anarchical and brilliant book. I use that word 'brilliant' sparingly when referring to think- pieces and of course more generously when people suggest a quality pub or bar I hadn't thought of to meet up in. This book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb a former derivative trader turned professor (who urges us to distrust people with ties) has been nagging me for sometime and only today listening to the author on Tech Nation Podcasts did I hear the essence of the book that I could encapsulate in a post. On one level it's about interpreting failure differently and is supportive of the idea that embracing failure is a good thing. The title of the book however does need careful attention. It comes from Karl Popper's assertion that it only takes one black swan to undermine the statement that 'all swans are white'.

In a nutshell we would definitely describe Google as a positive black swan. It came out of nowhere to achieve world dominance. I remember clearly the day when the email recommending Google's superiority was sent round by the new IT guy at Howell Henry. It was put simply, a better search engine. Absolutely nobody could have predicted how huge they would become. A negative black swan example would be Lloyds Insurance whereby a seemingly stable business made it's very rich investors and 'names' liable to bankruptcy overnight. Banking and Insurance are negative black swans (that Taleb says hire dull people and make them look even more dull than they are) because while on the surface they appear to be stable businesses, they are subject to forces that can sink them, as mentioned just now with Lloyds when it was forced to deal with asbestos claims in the 80's.

At the heart of the book is the theme of trend prediction and certainty which is surely as close to the output of a planner as can be sought. It should teach us to be a little more humble about our glaring weakness for as the WSJ puts it; confirmation bias (our tendency to reaffirm our beliefs rather than contradict them), narrative fallacy (our weakness for compelling stories), silent evidence (our failure to account for what we don't see), ludic fallacy (our willingness to oversimplify and take games or models too seriously), and epistemic arrogance (our habit of overestimating our knowledge and underestimating our ignorance).

A point that is raised nicely in the podast is to picture a small pool of water on a table. We have no evidence to show that it came from an ice cube or even more inspiring that the ice cube was carved and shaped into a small figure before it melted. Out view of history is always explaining backwards as best we can. This is a linear approach that cauterizes the true story. Even more breathtakingly is the idea that viewing history by working backwards is a fallacy because history is actually always moving forward. This is where the brilliance of Dr Nassim Nicholas Taleb excels. It's a huge thought and one that undermines a lot of people in suits and ties and uniforms that get it wrong.

The author of this book is not so much showing us a way to predict events as showing us a challenge to the the myopic and causal way of examining history to predict the future. If anything it's the good doctors advice to be sceptical of things that matter, and equally so, to not be sceptical of things we can do nothing about. I urge you to listen to the podcast if nothing else.

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