The Hunt for Grey Swans — Top 15 Methods & Frameworks — #5 The Cone of Possibilities

Chasing Possibilities, Wild Cards and Extremes by Investigating the Long Tail of Futures

Grey Swan Guild
13 min readJan 19, 2024

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

As we get deeper into the promotion of our series of Grey Swan frameworks and methods, someone DMed me the other day and asked the fundamental question “if all you are doing is looking at possibilities with less than a 25% of happening, isn’t that a poor investment of time for value?”.

It’s a good question and fair challenge. Is all this anomalous forecasting, fringe foresighting and speculative futures work worth it? Wouldn’t it be better to narrow our focus on things that we know will happen with more certainty? I would posit that the questioner isn’t some agitating provocateur, bot closely represents a well-supported mainstream view.

Smart questions should have ready-made smart answers. Why do we believe this investment of effort in the shadows and margins is worth it? We have our list of eleven answers below.

Before we reveal our slam, bam, pop retort, and our 5th framework in our Grey Swan series — The Cone of Possbilities, a great summary answer might be found from Google founder and former CEO (then Alphabet) Larry Page. He helmed Google through some of its meteoric growth phases and has certainly profited from his orientation to the future with a personal worth over $129 billion (making him 8th wealthiest person in the world).

He may never had the stage presence of a Jobs or fervor to be in the spotlight like Musk, but he does own one of my favourite piercing quotes on the value of futures work that cuts to the chase:

“Lots of companies don’t succeed over time. What do they fundamentally do wrong? They usually miss the future. I try to focus on that: What is the future really going to be? And how do we create it? And how do we power our organization to really focus on that and really drive it at a high rate?”

I agree Larry — let’s not miss the future. We are doing our small part by profiling all month the top 15 methods and frameworks for scouting the range of possibilities called Grey Swans. We are on edition #5 in this post — The Cone of Possiblities.

Eleven Reasons to Invest in Grey Swan Intelligence & Development Work

  • Reason #1 — The World is More Precarious — we (countries, companies, cultures, careers) are always now two-to-three years away from being severely disrupted, or perhaps ending. Frequently, we don’t see the signs. The average lifespan of a company has a 5X shorter life than a half century ago, most affected by not anticipating shifts. More than two-thirds of professionals believe this uncertainty is more pervasive than it has ever been (based on my recent 2024 research) — shouldn’t we try to do as much as we can stay ahead of the headlights of a foreboding future?
  • #2 — Certainty is Already Priced In — we have so much information and analysis in the world that the arbitrage on certainty is so small. Knowing what is projected to happen has less and less value nowadays. We can’t game a system that is so well connected and responsive. In an almost perfect, real time information society, by contrast, configuring and thinking what nobody else has thought about the future has inestimable worth and competitive advantage.
  • #3 — A Counteraction to a World is Increasing Paralyzed by Risk — winning cultures and leading organizations do not succumb to the rising risk aversion gene — they see the future as one of progress and possibility, and it starts with having a better orientation for what’s next. London Business School believes having senior decision makers focus on the customers and competitors of the future as a #1 winning cultural trait.
The World’s Increasing Risk Aversion (Source; Financial Times/Google nGram)
  • #4 Performance — Future Prepared Firms are 2X Better Rohrbeck’s longitudinal research from 2008–2015 places a 200% premium on stock market performance and 33% better on profitability of future prepared firms — his conclusion, there is real gold in them hills by tapping all forms of futures for insight, lead time, R&D and venture advantage.
  • #5 Horizons are Here and Now, You Can’t Push Out Futureproofing anymore — historically change happened a little more glacially. Tools like McKinsey’s Three Horizons model suggested you could spend 10% of time on the long term planning otherise know as Horizon 3 (and of course it was the work first cut with tight budgets). This is flawed thinking in 2024. The pandemic. The rise of AI. Supply chain madness. Eastern European conflict. How much more evidence do you need to know that the future’s unthinkable and improbable can happen tomorrow?
  • #6 Leadership Needs Loosened Mindsets — by using Grey Swan frameworks and tools, so many positive knock on effects can change the culture of the sponsoring organization. Higher engagement, bigger aspiration, more positive employee experiences, better inclusion and embracing the art of the possible, provides positive agency over the future in a world, that increasingly believes the future is more bleak.
The Next Generation — Worse or Better (Source; Pew Internet 2022)

#7 The Innovation Fly Wheel Needs to Act Faster and Future Relevant — innovations need to make sense in the marketplace of tomorrow, not today. Organizations that didn’t have AI in their operating models are now playing a mad and precarious game of catch up. Don’t even get me started on most governments. My Corporate Innovation Playbook research also suggests that innovators are more than twice as fast at what they do versus even five years ago. Understanding today’s edge and fringe allows companies to produce tomorrow’s next big thing at the right leading edge of the curve.

#8 Resilience to the Unseen — invariably, even the best future-savvy organizations will experience disruptions that crest over the mountains of their day-to-day. Like personal fitness training, investment in Grey Swans work can create future tone and muscle more able to respond with agility to the what the hell just happened unexpected polycrises of tomorrow.

#9 Thought Leadership and Perception Impact on Stock Value and Talent — 63% of company’s stock value is based on reputation (Weber Shandwick 2020). 84% of talent would switch jobs to a company with a better reputation (HBR, 2022). We underestimate frequently the impact of a company’s reputation, and its ability to chase an unknown future, when a customer is standing in front of shelf, online shopping cart or end of a pitch, or a talemted mind in front of a job posting, So what drives thought leadership and reputation? According to PR Lab, it’s a great, bold, compelling and original handle on the future.

Thought Leadership Strengths (via PR lab)

#10 Staying Ahead of Customers Brand Keys does an interesting study each year on customer loyalty and a fascinating conclusion they have reached — whereas customers expectations across their industry categories go up every year by 28%, companies and brands are only able to keep up at 7%. At such a pace, how else can companies keep up and bridge the gap than exploring futures that might make them feel uncomfortable or perhaps even put their incumbent business model at risk?

Customer Expectations Gap (Source: Brand Keys)

#11 A Hedge Against Undefined Risk — consider this powerful statement about the value of foresight — Canadian theatre production The Shaw Festival kept 500 people employed during the pandemic shutdown by taking out “communicable disease” insurance in 2017. Sometimes great foresight and exploring the barely thinkable can act as a defence versus an attacking opportunity. Establishing contingencies, building safe havens, creating strong security defences and embracing insurable coverage against Grey Swans is simply smart business.

Have you been swayed? Does this put more bullets in your already converted Grey Awan gun? Okay let’s make it real and consider our fifth tool in our series — the Cone of Possiblities.

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 #5 — The Cone of Possibilities— The Long Tail of Futures

The Cone of Possibilities (CoP) is a future and foresight framework ideally suited for Grey Swan analyses as it rejects the notion that the future is linear but instead has a kaleidoscope of six-seven ranges of expanding futures the futther you extend it out.

CoP is a good productive meeting place between the professionals maddened by the multiplicity of futures and lack of one right structured answer, and those feeling hamstrung too frquently by processes that aren’t expansive enough and that tie too closely to the weight of past and the push of the present.

CoP maps out the possibilities of an organization into the future, categorizes their differing probabilities (we describe these below), and helps them apply it to their business today. Some of CoPs’ practitioners simplify the model suggested above to as few as three futures (e.g. projected, preferred and possible). We actually like Voros’ expanded seven future model (visualized above) especially with our Grey Swan interests in mind.

The Cone of Possibilities passes no judgment on one type of future being lesser than others. It acknowledges and embrace a world of uncertainty (an ongoing preoccupation of our Grey Swan Guild and theme/name of our first book). Of course, it is only as strong as the owner that facilitates the work and the investor that places values in it. Ideally, it helps teams and organixations be prepared to adapt to all types of intended and unforeseen circumstances — the proverbial long tail of futures.

Invented by: This one has many parents. A taxonomy of futures was buult by Norman Henchey in 1978 (possible, plausible, probable, preferable). The conical visualization of CoPs was put forward by Trevor Hancock and Clement Bezold in 1994 and by Charles Taylor of the U.S. Army War College who extended the cone backwards into the past and included the consideration for wild card events in 1990. Swinburne University professor of foresight and physicist Dr. Jospeh Voros has inherited the mantle of the more sophisticated cone in the 2000s by adding to its expansion and use. Ironically, it does have some shape relationship to a perspective on Space Time proposed and visualized in 1908 by Einstein-Minkowski’s Light Cone.

Category: Strategic foresight and scenario planning framework, a taxonomic rendering of the future universe, adaptable into a range of canvases and maps.

Why we Love It as a Grey Swan Tool: Intuitively smart visual rendering of different futures over a given time interval; Voros’ tool best captures the expanded lens of the future that can include operations, forecasters, strategic visionaries, trend observers, scenario planners and Grey Swan chasers all under one roof.

Overcomes the sin of: Believing the future has one function — instead, parts of CoP can be shaped, explored, quantified, shaped, anticipated and considered; use of one reasoning — instead CoP allows for deductive, inductive, abductive and speculative reasoning to play with the future.

Work preceded by:

  • TIPPS application of available research — short for trends, inputs, plans, projections and signals, using each to inform the ranges of different futures
  • Futures Multi-Headed Collaboration — getting the right multidisciplinary team to come together on their version of the future — frequently the owner of the preferred futures is not the owner of the probable futures or possible futures. Establishing a baseline for what the projected and probable futures is usually a. good first step.

Work followed by:

  • Various Future Narratives — using storytelling alchemy and labelling of key futures to shift our view of the world, image of the future, core mindsets, reality interpretations, our work, behaviors and daily tasks, and actions that can shape our lives and futures.
  • Prioritize & Identify Actions and Offerings — take top Projected futures, (changed scenarios), Preferred futures (altered visions, strategies, OKRs), Possible and Preposterous Futures (Grey Swan possibilities, wild cards and extremes) and explore and exploit them. The overall effect of this work can help organizations monitor scenario shifts, early warning systems, resilience efforts, responsible governance and business model adaptations and pivots.

Facets of the Cone of Possibilities

  • Preposterous Futures — the domain of Grey Swans disruptions, discontinuities and perceived unthinkable and impossible, those disputed futures that embrace the notion that “any useful idea about the future should appear ridiculous” — in our parlance we might call these shadow swans (less than 1% chance of happening within a given time interval).
  • Possible Futures— futures that we think ‘might’ happen, based on a development that hasn’t happened yet or some future knowledge we do not yet possess, but which we might possess someday — in our lexicon, we might call these cloudy swans (less than 25% of happening in a time interval) or stormy swans (less than 5% chance of happening).
  • Plausible Futures — those futures we think ‘could’ happen based on our current understanding of how the world works.
  • Probable Futures — those futures we think are ‘likely to’ happen, or what will happen if nothing changes. usually based on current trends and analysis.
  • Preferable Futures — those futures we think or hope ‘should’ or ‘ought to’ happen: normative value judgements as opposed to the mostly cognitive, frequently a subset of probable futures.
  • Projected Futures — the business as usual, ‘baseline’ of futures, extrapolated ‘continuations of the past through the present’ future, otherwise considered as being ‘the most probable’ of the Probable futures.

Additional Commentary on The Cone of Possibilities:

“The Cone of Possibilities feels like an almost scientific truth about futures, perhaps no coincidence its genesis story has a physics component. One of the best taxonomies and visual heuristics to remind champions that the future is truly owned by many masters. As a popular and established approach, the six splintered cone validates and recognizes the true value of Grey Swans within its possible and preposterous futures, and does not merely dismiss them off to the side like crazy uncles. In practical application, usually gets played with and adapted into other tools and templates, to improve its actionable value within workshops or planning efforts.” Sean Moffitt

Grey Swan Posts:

This is number five 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:

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