Black Swans Turning White: The Importance Of Perspective When Managing A Crisis
A black swan is an event that strikes as a surprise, with a high impact on those affected. The Black Swan Theory was coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in 2007 and it revolutionised the way organizations think about risk management and forecasting.
One of the main messages the author tried to convey is that current risk models are not efficient enough and hard-to-predict disasters can occur due to lack of perspective. Looking back at the past twelve months, it can be observed how the failure of critical infrastructure was treated as a black swan. For instance, in December 2018 a drone entered the airspace above Gatwick airport, in London, which led to all flights being grounded and delayed for several days. The situation was described by the British Transport Secretary as “unprecedented” and something that had never been seen before. In this case, it is hard to disagree with Taleb when he says that black swans depend on perspective, given that previous drone activity near airports had actually already happened and had been reported; however, it was ignored.
At various points over the previous two years, drones hit commercial planes in London Heathrow and Quebec City, caused delays at London Gatwick (similarly to the December incident but on a smaller scale) and terrorists in Yemen actually managed to cause an incident at Dubai airport using a drone. On top of this, the Federal Aviation Administration has been warning about dangerous drone activity for years, even publishing a report with possible collision scenarios.
These previous warnings reveal a different picture than the one painted by the media and government statements, since this particular black swan was not an unknown or unprecedented threat. This is similar to what happened to another critical infrastructure in the UK in 2017, with the ransomware campaign that hit the National Health Service. The attack caused high disruption and caught many by surprise, even though similar attacks to hospitals had occurred in other countries in the previous year.
These instances highlight the importance of horizon scanning and preparedness. It is impossible to keep every risk under control, there will always be unknown-unknowns, but it is important to keep an open mind and try to turn as many black swans as possible into white ones.
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 BCI Cyber Resilience Report 2017
About the author
Research & Insight Manager at the BCI