The Black Swan provides access to the unique perspective of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. While at times I found his writing style less than appealing (though I suspect this is an instance where if I knew the author and his personality I would actually find the writing humorous and entertaining), his message is certainly thought provoking and worthy of serious consideration. In short, black swans represent occurrences that are both unexpected/improbable and highly meaningful. The name comes from the fact that years ago all swans were thought to be white. Every time a white swan was seen, it added more and more evidence to support this belief. However, it took the discovery of only one black swan to completely disprove the belief. More recently, the housing market crash was a black swan because previously it was thought that real estate always increased in value. This was true – until it wasn’t.
This line of thinking has many implications for performance. One of the most interesting is that Taleb would say it argues against the hedgehog principle made famous in Collins’ Good to Great. The hedgehog principle comes from accounts of great companies focusing on the one thing they can do best in the world (or in their industry). However, the analyses used to support the principles in Good to Great were all retrospective analyses. In other words, hindsight. As we know, hindsight is 20/20. Taleb would argue that it is only in hindsight that you can know what your best thing is because it involves a lot more than just you (for example, market conditions and the fickle whims of consumers). While we do not always like to acknowledge it, there are many things that influence our success that are outside of our control, and if you believe the black swan principle, are completely unpredictable ahead of time. The black swan strategy involves less overspecialization and more redundancy (another idea that is anathema in the efficiency-focused world of business and performance). This allows for you to capitalize on what you do well while also providing a buffer for the unexpected events that can dramatically change the conditions in which you are operating.