[April 22, 2020] It wasn’t that long ago that I was reading one of several books on U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and his prosecution of the Union side of the Civil War. The war was, in some sense, predictable, but no one was willing actually to do something to prepare for it. The possibility of war was just too remote, and the horror just too real. Thinking about unlikely future happenings means dealing openly with what we are happy to avoid. These rare but known events are called Pink Flamingo events.1
The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, led by radical Republicans of his own political party, bedeviled Lincoln until his death. They believed that Lincoln’s prosecution of the war was not aggressive enough. Regularly, they called Union generals back to Washington D.C. to testify and grill those they thought were not sufficiently committed to the war. This committee was a product of a pink flamingo event (the Civil War). It was a bureaucracy that did little good. Some have argued that had the committee prevailed, the Union cause would have lost in 1862.2
Those Pink Flamingo events differ from Black Swan events3 (I addressed them here). A Black Swan is an unpredictable event and for which we cannot measure the consequences. Because they are so unpredictable, and thus we are unable to calculate them into our consciousness, we do not address them. However, risk analysts do focus on gray swans, events that can be anticipated but are so unlikely, they are ignored. Of course, predicting the future is fraught with risks.
These rare “known knowns” are frequently predicted, like the U.S. Civil War, but are diligently ignored. The current Coronavirus pandemic is a contemporary example of a Pink Flamingo. In fact, a novel coronavirus pandemic was predicted in 2017 by a U.S. military study from the Pentagon. Documents show that there would be a shortage of masks, hospital beds, and ventilators. It also laid out how the U.S. military could respond to such a pandemic. Furthermore, CDC studies have predicted pandemics for decades, but little effort has been done to prepare for them.
This article is not an attempt to place blame. My intent is to demonstrate how slowly bureaucracies move to prepare for the rare known knowns. When preparing for a rare future event consumes vast quantities of resources, seldom will anything of consequence be accomplished. This was true of the Civil War and the terror attacks on 9/11. The current pandemic is no different. Resources (time, money, expertise) are not unlimited.
How we react to a pink flamingo event, however, does demonstrate the character of a nation.
- Author Dr. Frank Hoffman identified and gave the name “pink flamingos” to future events that are predictable but are ignored due to the cognitive biases of a senior leader or group of leaders trapped by powerful institutional forces. His article, published in 2015 can be found here: https://warontherocks.com/2015/08/black-swans-and-pink-flamingos-five-principles-for-force-design/?fbclid=IwAR0JxouCiJ39OJZVWyyCyGJcRZjWnK8O7nntSelHHQuUFIzG0BQJXfp8J3Q
- The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, 2007.