black-swanMy book this holiday week (see 13 April post) was The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Published a couple of years ago to good reviews, it has been languishing on my bookshelf ever since. This is in part because like, say, Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point, you can imagine that you have got the general gist simply by reading the title and the blurb. The Black Swan is irritatingly written but I am glad I persevered. Taleb is at his best when he writes about the world he knows best – the world of financial traders. Consider, for example, this telling phrase, ‘…the tragedy of capitalism is that … owners of companies, namely shareholders, can be taken for a ride by the managers who show returns and cosmetic profitability but in fact might be taking hidden risks.’ The general theory is that the unexpected and unpredictable has the most effect but, precisely because it is unexpected and unpredictable, you cannot account or plan for it – and it is precisely because you cannot plan for it that it has the most effect. This reminds me of Ralph Stacey, whom I heard lecturing on complexity at the Said Business School in Oxford last year. He recounted in deadpan fashion how he had been the author of five strategic management plans, none of which had been realised. I paraphrase, but the reason, he realised, is that he couldn’t account for the unknowable and the unpredictable and every such unknowable or unpredictaable event took his companies further away from the ‘ideal development line’ charted from the starting point he had based his initial strategic calculations upon. The lecture had a profound effect upon my thinking. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have strategic objectives, but you should rather see them as distant landmarks to which you must navigate across expanses of water with unknowable winds and currents to negotiate on the way.