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Can you train for “black swan” events?

Is it possible to train for completely out-of-the-ordinary, “black swan” events? Something that in your wildest dreams you could never imagine happening? How to train people for something if you don’t even know what it is? Black Swan

Here’s a story happened to me…

Several years ago I was traveling to an client event in another country. I had been in my new position a couple of months at most. My boss was meeting me there, and  was to brief me on the details. I arrived a couple days early to visit with family — a good thing because on Day 1, the client called asking me to come. Boss was still in New York. So in I went.

Upon arrival I was told that a critical video that we created was stuck at the border.  I was to get it released ASAP. I smiled and said “yes, I’ll take care of it.” I had no idea what they were talking about. Couldn’t find my boss. Panic began to eat at the edges of my brain. I called everyone I knew to get the cell number of the one guy who could release the tape. He was eating dinner.  He apologized, and said he would take care of it as soon as the border customs office opened. Whew!

And then the real whammy happened on Day 1 @ 2 am (ok, technically Day 2). My boss called. She missed her connecting flight. She managed to get a flight to a city that was actually further away. Clearly geography was not her strong suite. But crazier still, they threatened to deport her because of something she said when she crossed the border: “work”. Never, ever, say you’re coming in to work in another country unless you have a work visa. I gave her this advice. Repeated it. To sum up, she would not arrive until much later on Day 2 — if she arrived at all. Me alone with the client (that’s plural client not singular) for another day. Didn’t really sleep.

Got up, put a smile on my face, and explained the crazy situation. Then volunteered to do whatever work they needed — and sure enough, they put to work. The tape arrived. Boss arrived. The rest of the event went swimmingly. We all survived.

When I got back, I was treated as a hero — if they could have given me the consultant equivalent of the purple heart they would have.


I can’t help think I could have been better prepared.

Is it possible to train for the unexpected?

YES, YES, YES!!!! Except I wouldn’t call it training…

  • Step 1: Tell people the unexpected will happen.
  • Teach them the power of negative thinking (book I read once). Have a team brainstorm about all the things that could go wrong and how you could prepare for them. What are the backup plans? This lesson I learned in radio — some technology will fail, some tape will break (yup, good ol’ analog days), some interviewee will *not* show up. Be prepared. Have a plan. Rehearse your plan.
  • Who will answer the “red” phone at 3 am? The hardest thing is feeling that you are alone in a situation. The one thing that made a difference to me was connecting with one person who was still at the office at 7pm. Hearing a friendly voice tell me that she would do “everything she could to help me” made all the difference. Thank you team mate!
  • Focus on the work that needs doing. I did my best to stay focused on the work that needed doing (get video, get boss, help client) It helped keep most of the anxiety at bay.
  • Stay positive & stay focused on the needs of your client. It would have been very easy to fall into victim mode (“I’m not good enough”, “I can’t deal with this”, “I’m an impostor”, “it’s his/her/their fault”, “it’s not my job!”). Look it’s not about you, it’s about the client. So get over it. Put your “game-face” on, and as trite as it sounds, go out there with a positive attitude. What can you do to help?

Ambiguity, complexity, and the distributed expertise of teams creates “black swan” events. How can we deal with the unexpected, emergent behavior of systems? I think there’s a  game to be created here (or maybe several already exist?)

This isn’t training — it’s strategy.

Would love to hear your thoughts.

Posted in business, instructional design.

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2 Responses

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  1. Kathleen Lucey says

    I am a Black Swan Hunter in Business Continuity, the “art and science” of preparing for the unexpected, the unanticipated, and very often, the unimagined. Your real-life experience is instructive, and happens often. Yours was dramatic. Whenever something is as critical as your video there should be more than one of them…consider the cost of video replication – it is trivial. You, your boss, fedex, maybe even courier…even that is not so expensive. But because it had not happened before, at least to you or your boss, or anyone else related to this client. People tend to act by their own experience; decisions are faster that way..
    But you hit the critical mark — it is not training, it is strategy. Implemented strategy becomes culture. And culture is what causes people not to see the potential black swan in a situation.

    Kathleen Lucey, FBCI
    New York City

  2. Rani H. Gill says

    Thanks for your comments Kathleen. It’s great that you call yourself a Black Swan Hunter – your business sounds fascinating. My examples were simple compared to the complexity that your company handles. The question is how to create a strategy and culture that continuously keeps changing so a company does not get set in their ways. How to create, what I would call, a culture of learning.

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