Pink Flamingo Events and the Future

By | April 22, 2020

[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.

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  1. 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
  2. https://amgreatness.com/2020/04/17/bureaucracy-and-pink-flamingo-events/
  3. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, 2007.
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

21 thoughts on “Pink Flamingo Events and the Future

  1. Dennis Mathes

    Very interesting article. I admit that I’d never heard of this before. Always good for me to get new ideas into my head. It broadens my world and keeps spreading out my thinking. This is real diversity at work. Diversity of ideas.

    Reply
  2. Dale Paul Fox

    “Pink Flamingo” is likely to be more associated with nightclubs than an important decision-making idea. Strange choice but I see the humor in it too.

    Reply
    1. apache2

      Thanks Otto. Here is one of the key ideas from this article. “American policymakers and strategists would benefit from a longer-range view of history to better inform defense policy and joint force design. “

      Reply
  3. Tom Bushmaster

    I’m personally a big fan of books on US Pres A. Lincoln. I’ve learned a great deal from those who studied hard to find out more about this great man. Lincoln was a hard worker, smart, and mature. He also had a controlled attitude and didn’t let his emotions get in the way. I now also see he had to contend with some nasty people in his own political party. How very interesting.

    Reply
  4. Joe Omerrod

    “Black swan” event versus the “Pink Flamingo” event. Yes, I now see the difference. It is important, at least to me, to see better what others are thinking so as to expand my thinking. It’s not just the concepts themselves but the method or the process of how I think that matters and creates greater maturity as a leader.

    Reply
    1. Willie Shrumburger

      Joe, spot-on comment. The process of learning to develop good arguments and apply that thinking in a variety of settings, separates those who talk a good game as opposed to those who have a good game.

      Reply
    2. Albert Ayer

      Exactly right! One thing that I’ve discovered over time is that if you don’t go out of your way to read and study – like with this blog – then you will never really succeed as a great leader. You will only lag behind and then wonder what happened.

      Reply
      1. Newtown Manager

        Albert, I think you will agree that Gen. Satterfield has pounded this idea into us over and over again. Anyone who reads his articles will learn the very concepts needed to succeed spectacularly as a leader. But, getting the relevant experiences are what are most important – let’s not forget.

        Reply
      2. Linux Man

        Exactly why I have the discipline to come to this blog every day and do my exercises without fail. Discipline in all matters helps make us a better person, better leader, and more satisfied with out lives.

        Reply
  5. Valkerie

    Excellent and entertaining article. Thanks General Satterfield.

    Reply
  6. Doc Blackshear

    Wow, glad I read today’s leadership article. I never heard of this phenom before but it makes plenty of sense. Now, I have a shorthand concept to talk about. Just wait until I get back with my colleagues and let them know about both this blog and the things we all learned.

    Reply
  7. Army Captain

    World War 2, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War were all pink flamingo events according to the definition used here. All gave us advanced notice but we were just too inward looking and full of denial to get ready. That has been the history of America for a long time. That is why our military is often beaten up in the beginning but we ultimately prevail (at least when our political leaders have a strong will). Good article worth sharing with friends.

    Reply
    1. Kenny Foster

      I would also suggest that most wars are predictable in some way but leaders are biased to ignore the warnings. That means they rely on “hope” instead of diplomacy and having a strong military. So, those who argue that having a strong military only leads to conflict are wrong. The opposite is true.

      Reply
      1. Harry Donner

        Good point Kenny and well argued. I will add that the US Civil War as noted in Gen. Satterfield’s article today is one of the best examples.

        Reply
      2. Bill Sanders, Jr.

        Yes, good point Kenny. This brings us to the debates about strong versus weak preparation for war (regardless of the cost of a military or defensive structures and equipment). Liked the article. ?

        Reply
  8. Max Foster

    Never heard of a ‘pink flamingo’ event before reading today’s article but I see it now and also see other events like the current COVID-19 pandemic as one of them. Thanks Gen. Satterfield.

    Reply
    1. The Kid 1945

      Hi Max, good to see you on the leader blog today. I always look forward to your comments, they make a lot of sense.

      Reply
      1. Max Foster

        Thanks JT. I try to make a good point when I comment here in the forum. By doing so, it develops my thinking just a bit more each time. I figure that if you practice thinking thru an idea, it helps you in the long run.

        Reply

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