Grey Swan Week — 2024 Begins and the Definition of a Grey Swan

Grey Swan Guild
8 min readJan 10, 2024

A full week of wild card posts but first let’s get the Grey Swan risk and uncertainty basics right.

Author: Sean Moffitt, Grey Swan Guild Founder and CEO, Cygnus Ventures

Our Grey Swan Guild was formed in the midst of a true Grey Swan. Back in January 2020, some of our founding members deeply contemplated the implications of a then, not-well-appreciated virus, spreading out of control in Wuhan, China.

Sure Bill Gates and others had contemplated a future pandemic, but the challenge was always still the what, the where and the when.

In contrast to those armchair pandemic quarterbacks who exclaimed “I told you so”, my company Futureproofing’s expert panel produced a 2019 Metatrends Report that had definitely considered pandemics as a future wild card influence on the world, but it only was ranked 15th in likelihood to sideswipe us at the time. Hardly imminent or actionable danger.

Considerable noise and bias exists in contemplating the remotely possible. The influences of looking for these wild cards can take you outside of the handcuffs of the status quo, beyond the norms of conventional viewpoints, and to the cusp of the barely fathomable. It can make even the most iconoclastic among us a bit squeamish. This is the art and science of Grey Swans.

This is What We Love Doing — Back to our Guild Roots

By March, 2020, our Guild founders had written a couple of extensive posts on the pandemic subject, considering the many angles and implications for what was next. By April, we were meeting with an earnest group of tens of people committed to wrestling with this pandemic Grey Swan. We thought we were creating a temporary regiment of sensemakers, futurists and complexity thinkers, little did we know we were forming a global Guild.

So … the very essence of our Guild was developed to make sense of these flipped up worlds. We have moved on from pandemics, to guns, to supply chains, to space explorations, and Middle East conflicts. In some respects, our 2024 Grey Swan Guild Week gets back to our early roots of counter intelligence and pondering the remote and unknowable.

Let’s get everyone onto the same page before we begin.

Grey Swans: Defined

Grey Swan — Definition: Unlikely but knowable key factors, events and developments, capable of being evaluated and validated in advance, with impacts that could positively and/or negatively shake up the world.

I’ll break a little bit of this down. Here are some key Grey Swan characteristics:

  • Spectrum of Probabilities: we look at Grey Swans as having a wide spectrum of probability occurrence but likely no greater than 25%.
  • Spectrum of Impact: we’re likely not considering the effects of transient fashions or minor fads with Grey Swan analysis, but they don’t all have to provide existential implications like Black Jellyfish or Grey Rhinos either (see below for more on these ). Sometimes the fun stuff is trapped in niche Grey Swan analysis that may have a small circle of impact but intrigues us nonetheless. Whatever a Grey Swan is, it likely carries some significant effect and disruption to its set of stakeholders.
  • Timing: the idea of a Grey Swan is pointless unless you constrain yourself to a specific time interval (remember the SMART principles for any type of intelligence observation). The feeling being is that anything is possible if you extend a timeline out far enough. We like specificity.
  • Capability of Knowing: we disagree with most suggestions that many crises and surprise developments are unknowable in advance even if they are remotely possible. Many considered our recent pandemic as a complete sideswipe Black Swan event (see below for more on Black Swans). However back in 2019, the WHO had evaluated over 1,400 epidemics in just the seven years between 2011-’18 and acknowledged a big one was occurring every three years. They released presciently enough an expert group analysis suggesting potential calamity in their World at Risk from Deadly Pandemics report in Sept’19, three months before the start of the coronavirus outbreak. We actually knew what we didn’t know pre-COVID. Similarly, Grey Swans can be rationalized in advance, AND in hindsight.
  • Open for Contemplation, Assigned Value and/or Quantified: because these pre-conditions have some bread crumbs (e.g. possibility, evidence, ranking and factoring) attached to them, they can be: played with as phenomena; smartly connected to other rising, falling or at risk phenomena; and induced (perhaps not necessarily with certainty or probabilistic predictiveness) with some objective or speculative reasoning.
  • Valence: in most risk and uncertainty annals, uncertain events and phenomena are frequently described as catastrophes or crises. We don’t believe all surprise scenarios are bad. Positive, negative and neutral outcomes may be the manifestations of a Grey Swan. Even in objectively bad events like a pandemic, you do also get a range of progress and positive effects happening simultaneously (e.g. new technologies, vaccine developments, reappraisal of values).
  • Disciplines Invoked: playing to our Guild’s strength of multidisciplinary talents and hothouse collisions, Grey Swan consideration appeals to: futurists, strategists, innovators, foresighters, forecasters, planners, policy shapers, system thinkers, economists, investors, psychologists, sociologists, sensemakers, semioticians, philosophers, phenomenologists, complexity mappers, data analysts, scenario planners, trend navigators, researchers, scenario planners, business continuity planners, red teamers, risk managers, historians, technologists, crisis managers, decision makers, executives, amongst others.

The Animals of Uncertainty, Risk, Trends and Signals:

You may have heard some other animals beyond Grey Swans associated with risk and uncertainty management (perhaps the uncertainty-curious are really closet zoologists after all).

Here are the most commonly associated animals characterizing different uncertainties, impacts and causal factors: White Elephants, Black Jellyfish, Grey Rhinos and Black Swans. Each describe certain distinctive types of disruption to business-as-usual.

Although discernibly different characterizations, these animals all relate to each other by virtue of some type of unmanageable risk, overhanging uncertainty, anomalous trend observation, or early or weak signal detection.

Take note — unlike another couple of animals, bulls and bears, these type of risk beasts go beyond:

  • mere conventional risk assessment and management, to aspects that might not be fully known at the time of their contemplation and,
  • current state conditions, to include near, mid and far future scenarios.

Grey Swans, in particular, don’t set hard edges on what is, and what isn’t, in their boundaries. Grey Swans embrace a larger variety of non-conventional possibility, wild cards and lesser probabilities, certainly more than these other animal lexicon described in detail below.

Three Strata of Grey Swans

When stating a Grey Swan, it’s sometimes helpful classifying its possibility of happening. End of the year trend reports bask in the obvious, but how much neck are you really inching out by stating generative AI will be much larger in 2024? Many of these researchers live in fear of being wrong, Grey Swanners don’t.

When we share Grey Swans with client or colleagues, it sometimes dampens the reaction that we might be crazy, and lower resistance that we don’t know what we are talking about by assigning echelons of likelihood.

We have created three brackets of Grey Swans based on probability:

  • Cloudy Grey Swans — less than 25% chance of happening
  • Stormy Grey Swans — less than 5% chance of happening
  • Shadow Swans — less than 1% chance of happening

This Month’s Posts:

Now that we have defined what a Grey Swan actually is (and why like mosquitoes to the patio lantern, our Guild is attracted to them), we want to pay credence and attention to them with a collection of posts this week:

  • I — Grey Swan Week and defining Grey Swans
  • II — Our 2023 Report Card of Grey Swans (last year’s review and performance)
  • IV — Fifty Grey Swan Wild Card Influences in 2024 (ranking the categories)
  • V — Twelve Grey Swans Revealed (<25%) — Cloudy Swans
  • VI — Twelve Grey Swans Revealed (<5%) — Stormy Swans
  • VII — Twelve Grey Swans Revealed (<1%) — Shadow Swans

Stay tuned with us here, as well as on our website for all the rundowns.

Participate in our Hunt for Grey Swans

Don’t worry it’s a humane hunt. We have already invited some of our regular contributors to provide us the seeds of what will be our authoritative list of one hundred 2024 Grey Swans.

These are the improbable, disruptive and remote developments that decision makers better keep at least one eye peeled open for so they don’t blindside them. Perhaps you have some you’ve considered yourself.

Be among the most talented and wide-eyed observers. Let us know your Grey Swan additions and we will add them to our annual collection with our 2024 Grey Swan Guild Subnmission Form. Other benefits and collabroations may follow.

Grey Swan Submission From:

Grey Swan Guild — Making Sense of the World and Next Grey Swans

We are the Guild whose mission it is to make sense of the world and next Grey Swans (wild cards, scenarios, early signals).

How we do this is guided by our four values of: aspiration, collaboration, curiosity and purpose.

We bring this to life through six facets of our world-leading Guild experience:

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Now coming up to our 4th year of our Guild, we have built twelve ventures designed to create value and tap our enormous reservoir of talent found inside the Guild.

To get directly involved in any one of our Cygnus Ventures , including two venture efforts focused on research and intelligence efforts called Weathervanes (current focused) and The Radar Colelction (future-focused).

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