Finding The Black Swan

Many centuries ago, people were convinced that there were no such things as black swans. That thinking is so old, in fact, that there are references to it in Roman literature. That thinking was disproven around 1700 when a group of explorers sighted some black swans in Australia.

Since then, the term “black swan” is used to refer to something that, as Wikipedia states:

comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.

If you’re in business, I’m sure you’re familiar with black swans even if you’ve never called them by that name. My team often used the Monty Python quote that “NO-body expects the Spanish Inquisition!” when something surprising would happen.

I don’t think of Black Swans as negatives, necessarily. In fact, it’s exactly the sort of rare bird we should be seeking in business on many levels. For example, you’ve read many times in this space about the need to understand your customer. If you’re approaching them with an open mind, what you might find can be surprising. You might find, say, that your ad that’s aspirational in nature might have the exact opposite effect on your audience – it reminds them of what they don’t have and makes them mad.

Where I find Black Swans particularly useful is in negotiating. It’s critical to understand the needs and wants of the person with whom you’re negotiating and to get on the same side of the desk as they are, meaning you’re not in an adversarial position. In the process of doing that discovery, you often find a Black Swan – something you didn’t know about them or about something that’s part of their bottom line for the negotiation. Every party in a negotiation has a bottom line – things they can’t or won’t give up – while other things are far more fungible. Unless and until you can understand what those things are, you’re wasting time. If you find a Black Swan in the process, it’s important that you incorporate it unless it crosses your bottom line.

Part of finding the Black Swan is keeping an open mind, whether it’s in negotiating or in reading data or even in a brainstorming session. Be open to possibilities even if they don’t match your current understanding of the world. The Black Seans are out there – find them!

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