In the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine is a most compelling article: “The Black Swan of Cairo: How Suppressing Volatility Makes the World Less Predictable and More Dangerous,” by By Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Mark Blyth.

The beginning of this article reads as follows:

Why is surprise the permanent condition of the U.S. political and economic elite? In 2007-8, when the global financial system imploded, the cry that no one could have seen this coming was heard everywhere, despite the existence of numerous analyses showing that a crisis was unavoidable. It is no surprise that one hears precisely the same response today regarding the current turmoil in the Middle East. The critical issue in both cases is the artificial suppression of volatility — the ups and downs of life — in the name of stability. It is both misguided and dangerous to push unobserved risks further into the statistical tails of the probability distribution of outcomes and allow these high-impact, low-probability “tail risks” to disappear from policymakers’ fields of observation. What the world is witnessing in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya is simply what happens when highly constrained systems explode.

Complex systems that have artificially suppressed volatility tend to become extremely fragile, while at the same time exhibiting no visible risks. In fact, they tend to be too calm and exhibit minimal variability as silent risks accumulate beneath the surface. Although the stated intention of political leaders and economic policymakers is to stabilize the system by inhibiting fluctuations, the result tends to be the opposite. These artificially constrained systems become prone to “Black Swans” — that is, they become extremely vulnerable to large-scale events that lie far from the statistical norm and were largely unpredictable to a given set of observers.

Such environments eventually experience massive blowups, catching everyone off-guard and undoing years of stability or, in some cases, ending up far worse than they were in their initial volatile state. Indeed, the longer it takes for the blowup to occur, the worse the resulting harm in both economic and political systems.

As I read this article, I was thinking a lot about the sailboat paradigm and cross-cultural partnerships in the global Body of Christ. There must be some overlaps, some lessons for for followers of Christ, I mused. Here are a few thoughts that attempt to describe some of those overlaps:

1) The article claims that the practice of artificially creating stability, hiding the risks, suppressing volatility in the geopolitical realm ends up creating greater risk and significantly more danger.

Likewise, Christians in cross-cultural partnerships sometimes try to create artificial stability by rigid systems that do not account for the vulnerabilities that exist in the majority world. They often end up with more risk, not less … greater disappointment, and greater potential for broken relationships.

2) In the geopolitical realm, the need for predictability is tantamount to the need for control.

Likewise, western Christian partners sometimes live out this bias for control and end up feeling “burned” when things end in disappointment or failure; they may assume the partnership failed because they could not control it. But the answer is not in having greater control, but in submitting ourselves to, and cooperating with, the sovereign Lord, the Wind of the Holy Spirit, who sees the end from the beginning and is Lord of all members of the partnership.

3) “Complex systems that have artificially suppressed volatility tend to become extremely fragile, while at the same time exhibiting no visible risks. In fact, they tend to be too calm and exhibit minimal variability as silent risks accumulate beneath the surface.”

Likewise, cross-cultural partnership practitioners should recognize that our efforts in Christian cross-cultural collaboration are truly complex systems with many silent risks. This should increase our dependence on God, motivate us to improve our cross-cultural relationship-building skills, and make us more open to honest critique that exposes the hidden risks. A non-defensive openness to critique, though rare, can be our privilege as we sail together inside of that realm we call the grace of God.

I have heard from expert sailors that the silent risks inherent in sailing are enormous. For example, the tides and currents which vary by the season … the weather which can change silently, abruptly … these are two that come to mind.

To artificially suppress the knowledge of the volatility of the currents or the weather would be unthinkable to a wise and experienced sailor. Rather, the expert sailor is bluntly honest, profoundly humble, alert and wise about all of the risks—and able to navigate an incredibly complex system in cooperation with the wind.

Expert sailing is required in volatile times.

Advertisements