Prompting Action to Address "Gray Rhinos" Using Crowdsourced Forecasting

By Adam Siegel on February 24, 2023

In a recent meeting in Washington, DC with a group responsible for continuously thinking about how the U.S. Intelligence Community can improve their mission, I was asked how crowdsourced forecasting can help mitigate "gray rhinos."

"Gray rhino events" was a term coined by Michele Wucker in her book "The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore." They are, as the book title implies, impactful, highly probable events, that everyone knows are coming, but are not acted upon. "It’s a metaphor for the fact that so many of the things that go wrong in business, in policy, and in our personal lives are actually avoidable," Wucker said in an interview with the CFA Institute in 2017. She said she coined the term to be a contrast to Nassim Taleb's "Black Swan" events which are the opposite phenomenon: an event that occurs where no one foresaw its occurance.

Examples of gray rhinos would be obvious real estate bubbles, water scarcity, or disruptive technologies. Wucker argues people don't respond to these kinds of events for a variety of reasons. Perhaps we have certain biases such as optimism bias or denial bias. Or maybe we simply feel powerless to do anything about the gray rhino, so we do nothing. We also may be actively disincentivized for one reason or another because acknowledging the gray rhino may be politically damaging.

There are also different kinds of gray rhinos. Wucker describes 4:

  1. The "charging rhino" which is something truly imminent;
  2. The "recurring rhino" which has historical precedence, like the flu season or market cycles;
  3. The "meta rhino" which are structural factors that give you an inability to deal with the other kinds of rhinos, like a toxic corporate culture; and
  4. The "unidentified rhino" where you know something is coming, like a disruptive technology, but you're not sure in what form.

So how could the process of crowdsourced forecasting help? To be clear, I don't think crowdsourced forecasting is a solution to gray rhinos, but I do think it could bring some necessary rigor, awareness, and collaborative support for prompting action. I also think a diversified, informed "crowd" of even 50 or 100 people can be a voice harder to dispute or ignore than a single expert or group of homogenous decision-makers, which is where crowdsourced forecasting obviously excels. Here are a few ways this could be accomplished.

Asking the right questions

What if there was an effort to identify possible scenarios that would play out if the gray rhino occurs, and what the "lynchpins" and subsequent forecast questions are that would help us understand which scenario is more likely? Phil Tetlock and Peter Scoblic have written about the combination of scenario planning and probabilistic forecasting, and we've created a methodology called "issue decomposition" we've put into practice on multiple projects, including INFER, an ecosystem of forecasting sites inside and outside the U.S. Government designed to provide an outside, diverse perspective to analysts and decision-makers. Even before a single forecast is made, creating a shared worldview like this may galvanize awareness of what is possible if the gray rhino occurs. Once forecasting begins, we can monitor the forecasting questions to see which scenario is most likely to play out.

Quantifying our perspectives

What if through probabilistic forecasts we quantified risks to create clarity in our dialogue? If everyone is aware the gray rhino is coming, then it's possible to ask forecast questions about the risks associated with its occurance. Getting away from fuzzy language in discussing risks (or performing no risk assessment at all) may help crystallize what outcomes are possible and also help to galvanize a response. For example, imagine if for our "charging rhino" water security example, we were asking a forecast question like: "When will [X location] have to begin shipping in water from external sources?" or "How much will the average water bill increase in cost in 2024?" Would hearing there's a 75% chance it will only be a year until external water sources need to be shipped prompt more urgent action? Or for a more extreme scenario, everyone is obviously concerned about the next pandemic. If I say, "there will be another pandemic" most would agree in a vague sense. But if an informed crowd with a track record says through their forecasting activity: "there’s a 75% chance of another pandemic that kills 1 million people in the next 5 years," the concreteness of that statement is harder to ignore.

A Safe Space to Say What We Think

What if we used the aggregate forecast to challenge conventional wisdom and look for departure from the status quo? In my 2022 retrospective post, I argue that too much emphasis is placed on forecast accuracy, and not enough on the the forecasting process itself and how it can have tremendous value starting on day 1 of forecasting. I have been witness to several recent examples where the consensus forecast, a small cluster of contrarian forecasts, or the rationales used for forecasts, have made decision-makers question their own thinking or contribute to an entirely new mental model of thinking about the decision they are making. If the prevailing attitude, perhaps driven by collective biases, inertia, or fear of action is held up against a forecast by the collective, there may be enough willingness to challenge conventional wisdom and take necessary action. "Safety in numbers," as they say.

Individuals, private organizations, and governments alike will always be susceptible to gray rhinos, but they don't have to be debilitated by them. In fact gray rhinos can be seen as opportunities. Those that can respond to them can create competitive advantage (look at all the tech companies trying to out-duel each other on the AI rhino), but only if an organization is willing to create the structure and culture that creates the ability to respond in the first place.