The Hunt for Grey Swans — Top 15 Methods & Frameworks — #4 Futures Wheel

Grey Swan Guild
11 min readJan 18, 2024

Chasing Possibilities, Wild Cards and Extremes by Asking Where Could This Go

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

An expansive Venn diagram of mindsets, skills and orientations to the world exists for people that can imagine and deliver a very different future. Certain professions may need to emphasize and respond to the here and now. Others however would serve themselves well to have a better orientation to alternate futures and not fear tomorrow so much. It’s with that in mind we have been profiling all month the top 15 methods and framework for identifying and sighting these pandemic-sized blindspots called Grey Swans. We are on edition #4 in this post — The Futures Wheel.

Seven Traits of an Adept Grey Swan Thinker

Before profiling the Futures Wheel, it’s likely an apt time to discuss what separates the best Grey Swan Thinkers from the pack. Candidly, this collection of tools although valuable is useless wallpaper unless you can embrace the discomfort zone behind them.

Much like singing, or perhaps strategy development, or maybe driving a car, many people think they are great at planning for the known and unknown future, but are they really? In my experience, many people that believe they are adept, are no more than average. And many people who believe they are good enough, are horrible at discovering what’s next. Grey Swan Thinking is what separates the future pretenders from the impressively awesome, forerunning great.

Here are there seven traits:

  • #1 Deep & Wide Intelligence Well — many people consider long term planners and strategic foresighters as having a strong open mind and fresh lateral mindset but very little substantive depth on a subject matter at hand, they view this as an open eyes advantage. The best Grey Swan Thinkers I’ve discovered are assiduously reading the past, present and future across a wide variety of subjects, getting their hands messy, and being able to invoke that knowledge intuitively (without needing to consult ChatGPT first). Litmus test: would your colleagues call you an encyclopedia of knowledge, with a large field of experience?
  • #2 Curiosity Beyond the Superficial — there are the people who will dig a small hole for sources of available information until they gather what they need to support their ingoing beliefs; Grey Swan Thinkers however excavate — constantly mining by asking new questions, exploring further afield by going to the edge sources, challenging their own instincts and chasing new frontiers and veins of what-ifs. Litmus test: would your colleagues say that you are not satisfied with the first answer you receive on something?
  • #3 Agency, not Determinism, over the Future — some short term forecasters and analysts believe their algorithms are bulletproof; however the best Grey Swan Thinkers believe that the future is a set of dots that can be connected differently by different people. They have a strong balance of understanding that intentional human will and random external influences can both change the future. Litmus test: would you agree that most anything is impossible in the future?
  • #4 Almost Uncomfortably Open, Not Abruptly Judgy — I’ve run across a number of leading minds in the strategy and planning space that believe things always need to be done in a particular way, or that there is a driving narrative that should perennially guide us; the best Grey Swan Thinkers eschew this dogma to consider actions and concepts that the majority might consider foolishly extraneous, squeamishly inappropriate or even taboo. They are also able to hold positions that face resistance, or be open to perspective that lack popular support, not for the purposes of standing out but for the purposes of chasing truths and likleihoods. Litmus test: would others say you have a flexible mind and are willing to consider various, even unpopular points of view?
  • #5 Emotional Future Balance — invoking the famous William Arthur Ward quote “the pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails”; many futurists get into the game because they have a Pollyannaish optimistic view of the limitless future. Conversely, many ideologues and theorists have some angry axe to grind about where things are headed. The best Grey Swan Thinkers are hopeful realists straddling that plus/minus line, and realizing there can be positive and negative effects from even the same development. Litmus test: would others say you deal in realities not fantasies?
  • #6 Action with Skin in the Game — knowledge and words are full of potential and sources of inspiration, but Grey Swan Thinkers have the capacity to turn this generative skill into action and influence. For this reason, I find many entrepreneurs are Grey Swan Thinkers because they are willing to put everything on the line in support of their different view of the future. Trend experts who never act on their own advice or planners who are never around to review and scrutinize their own performance are a dime a dozen. Litmus test — would others say you are willing to make smart bets and take future bold action on your foresights?
  • #7 Near, Mid & Far Future Capable —one of the curious wrinkles of professional disciplines is how they can develop and atomize themselves to the point where they dismiss key parts of their own profession. I find this the case of people who mine the future — on one pole, purvyeors of futurism, futurology, futures thinking and scenario planning and on the other pole, practitioners of predictive modelling, forecasting, trend analysis and pattern recognition. Each dismisses the other and rarely tucks them into their own professional orientation. This is unfortunate and inherently limiting. Grey Swan Thinkers are able to operate across the full range of futures, particularly now in an exponential world, where the future can happen tomorrow, in an uncertain world, where the future rarely happens in straight lines and in a data-filled world, where the smoking gun of evidence may now be accessible. Litmus test — would others say you are equally capable of considering what might happen next year as you would over the next 25 years?

It’s appropriate we cover the ingoing traits of Grey Swan Thinkers, as our next profiled method and framework requires many of them. So let’s spin the wheel — the Futures Wheel.

Reminder — 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.

Let’s get vested in this effort together. Don’t be an ostrich, pigeon or dodo, be a Grey Swan.

The Full Collection of Grey Swan Methods & Frameworks

Method #4— Futures Wheel — Where Could This Go

The Futures Wheel is a concentric circular mind map that teases out the full spectrum of direct and indirect consequences that spread outward from some initial large trend, development or challenge.

An initial central node corresponds to some given development that has recently occurred, has heightened relevance now, or may occur at some point in the future. These seed developments can be focused on as: external influences, internal environment shifts and in our case, the pursuit of Grey Swan possibilities, wild cards and/or extremes.

Initial nodes can be expressed as a challenge, Metatrend, event or action required and should be suitably large to facilitate second and third order consequences (we have only visualized second order consequences in our hero visual for the sake of concept simplicity).

A large circle is drawn around that initial node, with 6–15 additional nodes placed on the circle to represent consequences that are conceivable to flow from this root concern. Visual arrows and links can connect from all initial nodes outwards to represent the specific related ties or dynamics.

A larger concentric ring of second, and sometimes third order nodes, is where Grey Swan value exists as they start to represent the more remote consequences. Typically, effective practitioners splinter 3–6x as many consequences from inside ring to next outside ring. Some are direct linear effects of the earlier node and some are combined effects. The further away from the centre you travel*, the increasingly indirect course the original trend can take. *Watchout: if you take it to some third, fourth and fifth order consequences, they frequently have no relationship to the domain of interest and lose their inherent value (e.g. fifth order remote consequences of reinventing the soft drink industry is thatw e are all going to die).

The use of interconnecting arrows makes it possible to visualize interrelationships of the causes and resulting changes. There should be some effort on the back end of this Wheel exercise to link similar consequences and assign probability to next order events happening, without dismissing the lower probability concerns.

The Futures Wheel organizes thoughts about future development or trends and places it down in a structured visual way. With visual collaboration software like Miro or Mural, these can be templated and teased out easily and asynchronously across teams.

A Futures Wheel can assist in developing multiple headlines about possible future developments, loosen team mindsets with a futures-conscious perspective, and aid in group brainstorming and collaboration around a central concern.

Invented by: Jerome Glenn in 1972 who devised the Futures Wheel originally as a student before working as a renown futurist on global level concerns. He originated it as a schematic output from structured brainstorming activity, that identified the potential consequences of trends and events; it has since been used in strategic decision making and in change management circles.

Category: Qualitative strategic foresight framework, and collective intelligence tool and mind map.

Why we Love It as a Grey Swan Tool: Allows for an exploration of the full impacts and consequences of a given development or trend, in particular the second and third order consequences that happen on the outside circles; the visual simplicity of often overlooked impacts.

Overcomes the sin of: Poor linear and pre-existing biased inputs frequently found in SWOT or Five Forces analysis exercises — done well, the Futures Wheel forces new and non-linear thinking; not easily visualizing interrelationships of the seed causes and resulting changes.

Work preceded by:

  • Establishing a key domain area of interest — a relevant key development, big challenge or large trend, that will be put under the microscope and placed in the central node.
  • Advance Work on First Order Consequences — depending on how much you want to steer the participants of the effort to the biggest first order consequences, you can pre-populate the most valuable 6–15 first order consequences.

Work followed by:

  • Analyse, Categorize and Prioritize (but don’t eliminate) Implications — after identifying orders of changes, go deeper, categorize and assign probability value for the full list of implications we have identified previously and develop implications within each area and probability for further analysis.
  • Link and identify actions — take the intelligence one step further thner, find solutions and contingencies for decision makers, policy makers and organizational leaders based on the seed influences and implications , decide which negative implications should be prevented and which positive implications should be enhanced.

Facets of the Future Wheel:

  • Identify problems, challenges, trends or changes you want to analyse:
    Clearly identify which implications of which events you want to analyse.
  • Identify first-order consequences:
    Identify the most valuable direct consequences and influences, which might ensue from the development identified in the first step.
  • Identify and link second-order and/or later order consequences:
    After identifying direct consequences, identify second and later-order consequences which are further implications from the first-order consequences. Do not dismiss any as too outlandish to be dismissed based on probability, this is where the Grey Swan value can lie.

Additional Commentary:

“The Futures Wheel is akin to those ‘choose your own plotline’ detective books I used to read as a kid. Even the most straight-laced of professionals can get excited and loosely play with the tool because that is the expectation at the end of it (professionals hate not achieving a goal). It represents a fundamental improvement over get-your-3M-stickies out, straight ahead brainstorming as it emanates from a central concern, logically links from almost certainty to more remote probabilities, and visual connects the thinking trail.. Although not a solution tool by itself, it creates a great visual on-ramp to action and innovation. A favored offsite and remote collboration framework in the Grey Swan thinkers’ arsenal.” Sean Moffitt

Grey Swan Posts:

This is number four of a set of fifteen posts on different methods and frameworks for chasing Grey Swans. but we have so much other commentary on this valuable but often overlooked chase for the non-obvious:

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 Form:

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

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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 Collection (future-focused).

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