August 16, 2020 / Abby Roberts

Black Swans: A Conversation with Olaf Isele

By Abby Roberts

On September 15, 2020 at 8 a.m. EDT, Olaf Isele kicks off PSX 2020 with his keynote presentation on the topic of “black swan theory.” “Black swans” are major crises that seem to occur without warning—when in fact, the warning signs were simply missed by observers. This concept was first popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in 2007, who published multiple books on this and follow-up topics. Olaf will speak to opening session attendees about how their role as product stewardship professionals can prepare organizations and industries for black swan events—and navigating through them when they occur.

What is black swan theory?

Black swans are, in Olaf’s words, “rare but massive events in human history that lead to seismic changes in all or major parts of the world.” Historical examples of such events include the Viking attacks on England beginning in the eighth century, the colonization of the Americas by Europeans, and the advent of the internet.

The term originates from a belief held by ancient and medieval European writers that black swans were impossible—they did not exist—until black swans were discovered living in Australia in the seventeenth century.

Black swan theory is the idea that although these rare events seem “impossible or inconceivable” before the fact, said Olaf, “they can actually be foreseen when people study developments in current events and recent history.” The theory has applications in finance, the military, and foreign policy. In today’s complex, interconnected world, it is relevant not only to nations, but to companies.

Black swan theory is useful to product stewards because it broadens our perspectives, encouraging us to shift attention away from our daily routines, to broaden our perceptions, and learn from world history.

“It is not a new tool or procedure to be learned,” said Olaf, adding that in a sense, black swan theory should be more “meaningful” than that.

“Usually we laugh when we talk with others about black swan events,” he said, “about how crazy this event would be, or how utterly unlikely.” By applying black swan theory, a product steward takes those laughable events seriously and plans for them, saving our organization pain and stress when such an event occurs.

Who is Olaf Isele?

Originally from southern Germany, Olaf Isele spent 24 years as an engineer at Procter & Gamble, where he developed diapers and sanitary products, working closely with the company’s product stewardship department. Influenced by the vast forests of his home country, Olaf says that he has always cared about environmental and sustainability issues.

In 2018, he left Procter & Gamble to start Metáxi SimBioSys LLC, a consulting company for research and development on nonwoven fabrics and their applications in medicine and hygiene, with a priority on finding sustainable, bio-based solutions. The Cincinnati-based company is named after the Greek word for silk. Several current projects at Metáxi relate to improving face mask and other PPE, while past projects have included the development of sustainable menstrual products made from local agricultural waste.

Olaf hopes that PSX attendees will leave his opening session with “renewed or increased enthusiasm about their job, responsibilities, and opportunities,” and that they will “hear and see interesting, fascinating things,” from both himself and the other presenters. He intends to be online during his prerecorded session and looks forward to answering attendees’ questions.

About PSX 2020

PSX 2020, formerly known as the Product Stewardship Conference, will be held virtually from September 15–17, 2020. For more information about PSX 2020 and to register visit the conference website.

Abby Roberts

Abby Roberts is AIHA's editorial assistant.


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