In English

On how to handle the unforeseen and the black swans

Both people and organizations may be locked into existing concepts, mental maps and practices in such a way that they are not able to handle the unexpected or the unknown in any efficient way. Glenn-Egil Torgersen, Ole Boe and Leif Inge Magnussen discuss how we can get closer to an understanding of the unknown and how people can develop the skills needed to handle the unexpected.

Glenn-Egil Torgersen, professor, University of South-Eastern Norway
Ole Boe, professor, University of South-Eastern Norway
Leif Inge Magnussen, associate professor, University of South-Eastern Norway

Important environmental and cultural challenges, and an urgent need for social transformation, have made it clear that we need to develop competences for handling uncertainty and the unforeseen.

This applies, for instance, to social security (cf. Meld. St. 5 2020–2021 – Samfunnssikkerhet i en usikker verden/Social security in an uncertain world). The message is also rooted in 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Such a competence-oriented reorientation obviously entails a need for strategic competence management skills (SCM) adapted to the nature and challenges of the emergency preparedness sector. But given that urgent global challenges like – for instance – climate change and political polarization lead to unstable and unpredictable environmental, social and cultural conditions, we can safely assume that most parts of the public sector need to develop skills for handling the unexpected. The same applies to private companies and civil society.

The need to handle learning and interaction during crises place new demands on the articulation and design of competence structures, training goals, training plans and their management.

Some research has been done in this area, and several projects are underway related to – for instance – civil-military cooperation. However, these projects emphasize organization between agencies and sectors with daily emergency preparedness functions, and focus to a lesser extent on specific competence development for school and education activities and strategic learning and leadership in companies and organizations.

In addition, there is little theoretical development on what kind of knowledge structures and competence areas should be developed at the individual level in order to handle unforeseen events (Torgersen, 2015; 2018).

Illustrasjon for Forskningspolitikk: Lars Fiske

Cygne noir

The term “The Unforeseen” (shortened “UN”) can be said to have its roots in the expression or metaphor «black swans» (cygne noir in French). The term «black swans» comes from the theory of science, as referred to by Karl Popper (1902–1994) and David Hume (1711–1776). The term refers to the old idea among Europeans that all swans were white. So it seemed until black swans were discovered in Australia.

The theorists of science used this in connection with illustrating logical conclusions from individual observations to general principles and general statements. Thus, the term «black swans» was associated with phenomena that today are perceived as unpredictable, unlikely and unexpected, but that could nonetheless, with a certain probability, be part of the life and world we live in.

Research on the unexpected has so far been rooted in many disciplines, primarily philosophy and organizational theory (Currie, 2013). In addition, there are research methodological challenges (cf. Rescher, 1998), which contribute to generalization problems.

The black swan has become a symbol of the unforeseeable that should have been foreseen if it had not been for the current concepts and ways of thinking. Photo: GiN Photo/Getty

«Black swans» in organizational and social development

It was especially the Lebanese-American financial analyst and statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb who linked the concept of black swans to the study of deviant, unexpected and unforeseen events in connection with risk and risk analyzes, especially related to economics and financial crises (Taleb 2020).
An Australian research group linked to

The Australian National University in Canberra (Bammer & Smithson, 2008), developed at about the same time a somewhat broader theoretical approach to unforeseen events, uncertainty and preparedness, related to more interdisciplinary areas and professional approaches, such as health, pandemics, politics, economics, climate and various societal events.

In retrospect, many have tried to continue, and perhaps overinterpret this thinking, with the intention of creating simple models to be able to predict events, including in economics and management (eg. Tetlock & Gardner, 2015).

We believe that, as far as the need for social transformation goes, the main goal is not to predict, but to identify ways of competence and pedagogical approaches, which can help to handle unforeseen events in the best possible way, when they occur.

This also includes attempts at finding new ways of capturing danger signals in a preventive emergency preparedness perspective, also given a critical approach to predictions based on statistical methods. We should also look at opportunities related to the relationship between competence to handle unforeseen events, innovation and learning for an unknown future (Barnett, 2004).

Organizational research and learning

The importance of unpredictability related to conditions for organizations’ development and innovation processes has in recent years also been focused on in the light of organizational theory (including Weick & Sutcliffe, 2015) and risk research (Aven, 2014).

A central concept here is the concept of resilience, and as postulated by Hollnagel (web, 2016), among several variants, most recently defined as «the intrinsic ability of a system to adjust its functioning prior to, during, or following changes and disturbances, so that it can sustain required operations under both expected and unexpected conditions».

The starting point is «Being prepared to be unprepared» (Hollnagel 2011: 6), and the inspiration is taken from High Reliability Organizations (HRO) systems within the health and transport and energy sectors.

In relation to organizational learning, Ikujiro Nonaka (Nonaka 2000) among others, has developed several analysis models linked to the expression Ba, which refers to interaction processes under risky and unforeseen

As far as the individual goes, resilience refers to the fact that some people cope with long-term stress, insecurity and pain better than others, and that some have fewer aftereffects, as – for instance – the development of post-traumatic stress disorder. In psychology, this is seen as the individual’s inherent force of resistence, robustness or resilience. This is often linked to personal traits (Torgersen, 2015; 2018). Thus, the diversity of human traits, abilities and behaviors must also be taken into consideration when developing
skills for transformation.

Educational basic research on the Unforeseen

The Unforeseen is defined as “… something that appears relatively unexpected and with relatively low probability and predictability for those who are experiencing and handling it” (Kvernbekk et al., 2015:30). This definition is again based on studies of various definitions and ten synonymous concepts such as the unpredictable, the unthinkable, the improbable, the uncertain, etc. (Kvernbekk et al., 2015).

A basic research question is: Is it possible to learn and train for something yet not known? Can we develop a pedagogy for situations that are unpredictable and not developing according to plan? The scientific problem is both theoretical and practical. Traditional models’ way of planning how to learn (eg. didactic relationship thinking) and formation models (eg. encyclopaedic) are not sufficient to handle these kinds of problems.

Didactic models presuppose clear learning goals and an inner causal interaction between factors like aims and content, which cannot be defined in advance concerning unforeseen events. Resilience models are based on the frequency of former occurred events.

Models of organizational learning have a more general perspective on competence and a less direct intervening approach to the learning process. New or revised models are needed based on the nature of the unforeseen.

The nature of UN

The term “relatively” is the core part of the definition of the Unforeseen (UN). To what extent an event is unforeseen will depend on viewpoint or perspective. One event could occur unforeseen for some actors (eg. the society/emergency services), but could be expected and planned for by others (eg. the terrorist act of July 22 2011 at Utøya and against the Government buildings in Oslo).

An unforeseen event can be described in three different time dimensions:
(1) Chronological time, where the event develops in a causal timeline from the first sign of danger (which is not identified or ignored), maybe via possible barriers, to the event itself. This way of thinking means objectively
spoken that there is no such thing as an unforeseen event – only signs of danger which are not perceived and acted upon.

(2) Messianic time, where the event is perceived to occur without any pre-warning.

(3) UN-0, which expresses the exact moment when the event occurs and the time just after. These events will be perceived as unforeseen, as they come as a surprise to the people who experience the event. The same people may though – as times elapses – gather information and connect the events to former experiences. This may help them understand what has happened in a better way and this understanding may lay the ground for possible further progress.

These three time dimensions are key bases for developing training for unforeseen events. When training for UN-0 it will, for instance, be important to focus on the ability to capture details in the chaos at hand. This is referred to as “holding the space” for concurrent learning and the development of an ability to sense the presence of phenomena that may lead to a crisis of this kind.

Flowers placed  in front of the cathedral in Oslo.
The July 22 2011 attack in Norway provides an example of how a community handles an unexpected event. (Photo: P Koch)

Degrees of the Unforeseen

Unforeseen events can neither be “totally unknown” nor “totally known”. Such events are in a continuum between these fixed extremes, denoted as the “continuum-field”.

An unforeseen event is divided into five main categories – within a degree of: (1) Relevance (to the target audience), (2) Possibility (of occurrence), (3) How known (in advance by the target audience), (4) Warning signs (scope/number) and (5) Warning time (for given/identified warning signs and exercises, eg. unannounced exercises).

All these factors will have a different degree of the unforeseen. Thus, they are key factors as bases for the planning of learning and training for the unforeseen, and can be injected as a part of the script and varied in and during the training.

The Strategic Didactic UN model

One didactic planning model for UN-training complements learning goals with generic competence areas, like self-efficacy, social support, improvisation, and samhandling (a term that equates, but in our context is not completely synonymous with, English words like interaction, social interaction, collaboration, cooperation, coordination, joint action and teamwork).

New studies (Torgersen, 2018) implicate that samhandling is one of the most distinct predictors for handling unforeseen events. However, the samhandling concept is here based on a high relationally level of ambitions, different from traditional “cooperation”, and consists of something more than eg. communication and coordination.

Samhandling under risk and unpredictable conditions (SUR) requires other elements than what is the case for samhandling when conducted under predictable conditions (Torgersen, 2018). A concise description of SUR, is that “… SUR implies an emphasis on specific educational, organizational and operational structures, and these structures can have different importance for the effectiveness of samhandling in order to master challenges in the phases of warning signs, incident moment and recovery” (Torgersen et al., 2018:527).

Emphasis is put on educational structures (eg. extract knowledge out from disorder in information and surroundings), organizational structures (eg. shared leadership, the avoidance of organizational narcissism) and operational structures (eg. collective acceptance of swift changes in behavior and loss of control).

The pedagogical approach should be indirect (Saeverot, 2013; Saeverot & Torgersen, 2020), and based on the use of “invisible methods”, which implies minimum use of defined blueprint solutions, and a conscious use of unclear learning content.

Newer research by Helskog and Torgersen (2021), includes also philosophical practice and “philosophising the dialogos” as a practical pedagogy for the unforeseen. In addition, recent innovation theory and pedagogy intertwine the organizational and individual perspective as a basis for the development of new and innovative solutions (cf. Darsø, 2013; Scharmer, 2007).

The next step

Previous research has emphasized a technical, system-oriented and an overall understanding of knowledge and learning, where it is largely the system itself, especially technical installations and alarm systems, which in total constitute barriers and «resilience».

However, in order to understand, identify and develop actual human knowledge structures that could form the basis of a concrete competence framework for meeting and dealing with unforeseen events, a more in-depth and nuanced study of both the phenomenon «the unforeseen» is also needed. We then need to identify specific knowledge requirements, skills and learning processes that can deal with such incidents.

There is a need for more research that focuses on the particular (detail-oriented) types of competence needed to deal with such unforeseen events. We also need to create innovative solutions, and adequate didactic tests of learning design for pedagogical practice, in educational institutions and at the workplace.

We are part of a team consisting of researchers from The University of South- Eastern Norway and NIFU carrying out the Research Council of Norway’s funded project Educating for the Unforeseen: using educational science and innovation to prepare managers and employees to work with unforeseen events.

In this project we aim to address the questions raised in this article. To achieve this goal, we will combine theories from educational science with concepts developed in recent research on innovation and in theories on anticipation. The main aim is to develop new theoretical concepts, but we will also take the first step towards developing practical ways of using these concepts in the workplace and we will do this in dialogue with businesses and public sector organisations in Norway.


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Photo: GIN-Foto Getty