strategic design & innovation

How Black Sheep prepare you for Black Swans

culture & capability strategic foresight strategy

Strategy is all about making choices. This requires you to develop and evolve your thinking about the strategic opportunities and threats that constantly shifting external forces, markets and consumer expectations might open up. And how your assets and capabilities enable you to seize the opportunties and mitigate the risks. Your innovation strategy dovetails into this, recognising where your assets and capabilities might need augmenting, whether through organic development, ecosystem partnering or M&A.

Even during times of relative stability, making these strategic choices can be challenging. Making choices in today’s environment of accelerating technological change, turbulent geo-politics and systemic polycrisis can be paralysing. So-called Black Swan, Black Elephant and Black jellyfish events are increasing in frequency. This expanded "black menagerie", coined by futurists Ziauddin Sardar and John Sweeney, represents different post-normal potentialities, and provides a framework for exploring a range of futures.

  • The black elephant represents the known knowns - the obvious dangers that could disrupt your plans that you know exists but choose to ignore. Such as the Covid19 pandemic.
  • The black swan represents the unknown unknowns - the unexpected but not entirely unimaginable outlier event that has a huge impact. The 9/11 attacks fof example.
  • The black jelly fish represents the unknown knowns - the things that we think we understand but have turn out to have complex, unanticipated impacts. Consider Airbnb .

More than ever, to develop a resilient growth strategy, leaders need to call on and consider diverse experience and perspectives.

Psychologist and marketing professor Adam Alter, author of Anatomy of a Breakthrough, identifies three groups of people to be aware of:

  • People like you, demographically, ideologically, and in terms of professional expertise. These people will tend to amplify your thinking.
  • ‘Non-redundant’ people, whose field of expertise, ways of thinking or demography doesn’t overlap with your own or with each other. These people will help you to think differently.
  • Black sheep, who in addition to being non-redundant, will identify and share with you potential flaws they see in your strategy. These are the people who will challenge your thinking.

sarah leslie consulting why you need black sheep in the face of black swans

A black sheep is an idiom of English language that describes a member of a group who is different from the rest, someone who doesn’t fit in. It typically has negative connotations. In psychology, the black sheep effect refers to the tendency of group members to judge likeable ingroup members more positively and deviant ingroup members more negatively than comparable outgroup members.

Yet these same qualities also make black sheep invaluable, if rarely tapped, organisational assets. Black sheep are the divergent thinkers who can shake up organisational complacency, envision new futures and help navigate through ambiguity. With supportive leadership, they can generate the creative tension that leads to orthogonal ideas, breakthrough thinking and new ventures.

  • Dependent on your organisational scale and degree of industry focus, you might find that you have sufficient diversity across business units and functions that you can assemble a non-redundant group to guide your thinking. You might even have a program that enables collective strategic foresight. If you don’t have the scale or your focus is too narrow, then you need to seek out and engage with trusted members of your ecosystem.
  • Dependent on your organisational culture, you might also be able to find a few black sheep. But if you haven’t hired for diversity, and if your culture doesn’t provide the people who can see different ways of doing things with both the psychological safety to speak up, and the pathways to experiment and prove their new way of working, product or business idea, you’re not going to have any luck. Any of the black sheep who did make it into your organisation will have headed back out the door in frustration.

If your innovation culture is nascent, look to external advisors to act as these black sheep. Trained strategy and innovation coaches don’t just guide your teams through a process, but act as provocateurs who productively challenge the thinking, and enable new diversity of thought. These same black sheep often become your best entrepreneurs in residence, your best new venture builders.

To further explore how a few black sheep can advance your strategic thinking, get in contact

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