Can Failed Software Projects Be Black Swans?
The black swan theory is a metaphor used to describe an event that comes as a surprise and has major consequences. Black swans have been receiving attention lately because of the Healthcare.gov technical woes, but the health care rollout isn’t the first software project to be characterized as a black swan.
Black swan events were popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2001 book Fooled by Randomness, in which he applied the concept to financial events. In his 2007 book The Black Swan, he extended the metaphor to nonfinancial events.
In the Computerworld article that says the Healthcare.gov problems may qualify as a black swan, it defines black swan as an event that is difficult to predict and is disruptive. But given the long history of flawed and failed projects and plenty written on lessons learned, why should any software disaster come as such a surprise that it’s called a black swan event?
In fact, most such disasters aren’t a surprise at all. For example, in one study, 75 percent of respondents reported that their software projects are always or usually doomed right from the start. Think about it: 75 percent!
Given this startling statistic, the eventual failure of these projects seems likely. Maybe in such situations, people are unwilling to acknowledge the inevitable or afraid to tell anyone for fear of repercussions. And maybe some of these projects offer rays of hope that failure can be avoided, or at least transformed into something less dire. But such failures can hardly be described as difficult to predict when, as in the case of Healthcare.gov, much of the evidence has been right there in full view all along.
Despite human beings’ tendency to create narratives that help them make sense of their experiences, Taleb’s view is that it’s impossible to predict the occurrence of black swan events. It’s in their definition—they’re impossible to predict. Rare is the failed software project in which some or many participants didn’t see it coming. In that case, the term black swan can’t apply.
By the way, the term black swan originated from the Western belief that no one had ever seen a swan that wasn’t white. And then, lo and behold, in 1697 a Dutch explorer discovered black swans in Australia. This unexpected event in scientific history profoundly changed zoology.
I was delighted to see black swans when I visited the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, Australia. They are magnificent creatures that don’t deserve to have their reputations tarnished by failures we humans seem unable to anticipate.