2020: The Birth of Grey Swan Guild

It has been 8 months since the World Health Organization declared the global pandemic of COVID-19 in March. Many countries and regions are now experiencing new surging of infections. Most of us still remain isolated in our homes, continue juggling changes while forming new routines.


My days at home in Toronto are calm and orderly on the surface, yet busy and chaotic underneath. In addition to coping with disruptions in life and work, volunteering for non-for-profits, trying to make sense of the vast amount of information coming my way from everywhere, I had never thought I would join and become one of the founding members of a global “Think & Do Tank”: the Grey Swan Guild.


What is Grey Swan?

COVID-19 is a Grey Swan event.


Image Source: https://www.greyswanguild.org/about


How and Why I Joined

At the beginning of the year, my business partners and I started our work on how to apply “Sustainability” to innovate business models and value chains, so when I heard Sean Moffitt and Andrea Kates, the partners of “Futureproofing: Next” (a global boutique consulting firm), came up with 52 future-proof business models, I was immediately intrigued. I went to a couple of their talks and was impressed by their outstanding business know-how, practical innovation approaches, communication skills, and “do” capabilities.


In response to the first shocks felt in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sean, Andrea and another friend Rob Tyrie initiated some informal conversations online about what to do and how to handle various scenarios that were unfolding. These discussions led to a common theme: How Could We Make Sense of This New World? The explosion of misinformation and conspiracy theories had been unbelievable. A pandemic is a fertile ground for Paradoxes. I joined the conversations in April and decided to volunteer for more work with no hesitation, for two main reasons:


First, opportunities to work and connect with people who are smarter than I am. I knew every time I stepped out of my comfort zone, I would always improve in the end. Grey Swan Guild has no shortage of talents, many of whom I look up to. The learning has been so great that I am afraid I won’t do anyone justice only to mention a few. Through my early work in “sense making” at Grey Swan Guild, I got to know the thinking and feeling lenses to categorize the POVs (Point of Views) we collected. I’ve learned new online tools, such as Trello, Slack, etc. I’ve had more experiences about how to handle remote virtual communications. To my happy surprise, I found myself meeting with Maggie Riad, a former director of Singularity University’s (a school I secretly wanted to know more about) Innovation Partnership Program to discuss issues. Maggie is now co-leading our “member experiences” efforts at the Guild. Sensemaking, Research and Intelligence (RSI) are at the core of what we do. It is the first time I’ve learned the Cynefin framework (1999, 2007), developed by David Snowdon. Dave Marvit, a member of Grey Swan Guild’s sensemaking team reminded us that “we need to think more about Fear (beyond Loss Prevention) in below diagrams:

“We need to think more about Fear”


The Cynefin framework


Second, diversity is not a token. Studies after studies have shown how organizations and innovation benefit from diversity and inclusion. I moved to Canada from China over 20 years ago, have studied, lived and worked in the Western world for more than half of my adult life while keeping strong roots back home in China, especially during recent years when I’ve devoted more of my time giving back to the Chinese community in Canada and helping businesses in both English and Chinese speaking markets. COVID-19 seems to have worsened the world’s division. We are broken into groups based upon arbitrary categories: age, race, geography, political affiliation, education, economics, and so on. As a person of Chinese descent, I have been on alert that I can be the target of attack due to the origin of COVID-19, it doesn’t make sense but it happens. I am grateful that the members at the Grey Swan Guild hold the same vision of “bringing people together” and “bridging gaps” to do greater good collectively worldwide. As a result of the pandemic, we have all been forced into isolation at exactly the time when we most need to reach out. During this time, I was included to contribute to two publications we published: Emergent Leadership Perspectives and Emergent Global Perspectives in the Wake of a Pandemic, which can be found at https://www.greyswanguild.org/publications



“Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast”

At one of the Grey Swan Guild Online Sensemaking Salons, a newly joined member from Australia texted me: “Are you happy with this organization?” My answer is YES.


“Are you happy?”, “Are you learning?” are two metrics I inherited from one of my mentors to measure whether I should work for an organization. 6 months in, the Grey Swan Guild grew organically to over 600+ members worldwide. I believe it’s not only what we do, but how we do it and who we are that matter more. Below are glimpses of the moments that touched me.


Meeting Rituals


I love studying people. At the beginning of the pandemic, I participated in a design thinking workshop researching how rituals in our daily lives changed in different “tribes” and what it means for organizations. Observing the then nascent Grey Swan Guild forming its own rituals is fun, for example, we would have a “Hat Show” after every meeting; we salute with the Vulcan Gesture both physically and digitally. I once brought and rang a “Cow Bell” to remind people their time is up in a board meeting I chaired and everybody had a good laugh. We also love snack metaphors because we are “a mixed bag of chips”.


Leonard Nimoy, the original Mr. Spock. (Image: © CBS Broadcasting)


A Different Kind of KPIs (Key Performance Indicators)


Who says KPIs are only from top management? At Grey Swan Guild, it is open to all members to help shape our future together. KPI Hackathon is fun! We conduct productive and provocative 3Q “Quantitative, Qualitative and Qreative (derived from “creative”:)” sessions so that everyone can play full-out and have a say in the organization’s future. Evidence-based sensemaking, non-ordinary and innovative is our DNA. Example? “If Donald Trump tweeted I hate Grey Swan Guild” is a metric.


Online KPI Hackathon, Grey Swan Guild, May 2020


A Writer’s Out of Office


“Write from your heart” very much describes Vicki McLeod who heads our editorial board. Vicki puts her heart and grace in what she does. Her “Out of Office” messages are so beautiful that I would email her just to collect them.



Distributed Leadership


I had quite a few “firsts” with the Grey Swan Guild; “Distributed Leadership” is one of them. As changemakers, we are experimenting all the time. There is no fixated personnel at the top to lead our outputs. Any guild member has a fair chance to lead a “wave”, which is a content production cycle. We wanted to create a safe space for people to try new things. With “Distributed Leadership”, we pursue high innovation, low governance, and welcome open active contribution of all. I was nominated by Daniel Steiche to lead Wave II together and Alex de Carvalho came up with the theme: “Catching Our Collective Breath”. Wave I focused on “Emergent Perspectives”, and we are now accepting submissions for Wave II: https://www.greyswanguild.org/.


It Is About the Future

2020 has been one of the most challenging times for humanity in recent history. The global pandemic, the unprecedented US election, rapid changes, high uncertainties, continual stress. It is all overwhelming.


In the Chinese language, “crisis 危机” is always put together with “opportunity”. We must catch our collective breath and move on to the future. Grey Swan Guild is your platform and community to share your insights about our collective futures as world citizens. It is your portal to a diverse world of brilliant people and brilliant ideas. This is your opportunity to be recognized as a thought leader around the world. We hope you join us to #review, #renew and #redo together.

Author Profile: Jennifer He is a senior business strategy and marketing professional with 25 years of international experience. She started her career at China Council for the Promotion of International Trade and Intel Corporation in Asia. After moving to Toronto in 1999, she became a multi-media designer and later chief designer and operations officer at a digital media start-up. From 2004 to 2015, Jennifer held a number of senior management roles at BMO Financial Group spanning digital marketing, eBusiness, and strategy. Recognizing a gap in the market helping organizations brand well both in English and Chinese, Jennifer established VOYO Consulting Inc. She also facilitates Design Thinking workshops. Jennifer serves on the board of Grey Swan Guild and the Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Toronto. She holds an MBA from Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, and a BA from Shanghai International Studies University.

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