Michele Wucker on when the Gray Rhino Hits Asia

Aug 3, 2017

Michele Wucker describes a gray rhino as the "love child of the black swan and the elephant in the room." In other words, "it's a metaphor for the big, obvious thing that's coming at you that you've got a choice to deal with or not." Why has this concept struck such a chord in China, Taiwan, and Korea, while Americans tend to be more in denial about their gray rhinos?

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and I'm sitting here with our old friend Michele Wucker. She is author of The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore. She is also founder of Gray Rhino & Company.

Michele, great to have you back at Carnegie Council.

MICHELE WUCKER: So great to be here.

DEVIN STEWART: So good to see you.

You were here recently a few months ago, and you gave us the book talk. Just as a quick review for the listeners, what is the "gray rhino"?

MICHELE WUCKER: The gray rhino is the big scary thing with a giant horn—it's two tons, it's coming right at you, and you've got a choice.

DEVIN STEWART: It's a metaphor.

MICHELE WUCKER: It's a metaphor. Well, sometimes it might actually be a real one. I've seen some videos on YouTube where it really is one.

But it's a metaphor for the big, obvious thing that's coming at you that you've got a choice to deal with or not. I often describe it as the "love child of the black swan and the elephant in the room." Like the black swan, it doesn't get enough attention—big impact. It's an emotional way to focus attention on the big things that are in front of you. Unlike the black swan, it's highly probable. It's something you can really see the outlines of, so you've got a much better chance to do something about it than you do the black swan.

Unlike the elephant in the room, which just kind of stands there—the whole point of that metaphor is that people don't do anything. The gray rhino is dynamic: It's moving; it's coming at you. And I really want to challenge people to consider that they do have a choice and not to take for granted that nobody is going to do anything, and really to promote some accountability and responsibility.

DEVIN STEWART: It sounds like the problem is that people are in denial about what they need to do. Is there a psychological component to this?

MICHELE WUCKER: Very much so. There is a huge psychological component behind the reasons that we don't deal with the obvious. Part of what I'm trying to do with the book is get people to recognize that it's actually very human not to deal with something obvious, that there are lots of reasons. Sometimes it's denial; sometimes it's cognitive biases, the little tricks our minds play on us to keep us from being overwhelmed. But other times they are structural, they are misaligned incentives. It's short-term versus long-term thinking. So there are lots of different reasons why we don't deal with the obvious.

I want people to recognize that it's much more common than we'd like to think, that when you think you're dealing with something obvious, you're not really dealing with it, but also that it's okay to say, "Hey, we're not dealing with this very well," and to challenge yourself on a regular basis: Are you seeing all the big things that are coming at you, and what are you doing to deal with them, and how do you rate yourself on how well you're doing at dealing with these big, scary things?

DEVIN STEWART: When you show people that they're not dealing with these things, do you get pushback? It sounds like people might get a little offended. They could be offended by that, no?

MICHELE WUCKER: It has been fascinating to see reactions. Some people get it right away, and they say: "Oh my god. This is so simple, it's so powerful, and it's so important." Other people say: "Well, of course there are obvious things. If you don't see the obvious thing, if you don't deal with the obvious thing in front of you, you're an idiot." And my point is you're actually not an idiot because it's common, it's very human.

I found a very big cultural component as well. I found more pushback in the United States, where there are—

DEVIN STEWART: Because we're all great here.

MICHELE WUCKER: American exceptionalism, right? We're fantastic. We're number one.

DEVIN STEWART: We are number one, yes. Again. We're great again.

MICHELE WUCKER: Again, exactly.

But there are people, like superfans, who say "I am applying this to my personal life"—which was actually a surprise because the book is much more about policy and the business world—people saying, "This has affected how I'm changing my business decisions."

I did a workshop about a year ago with a company that was based in London, and they went back and actually used the framework to help prepare ahead of the Brexit vote. So they weren't happy with the outcome, but they weren't surprised, and they had a strategy to deal with it. So that's been fascinating.

But what really amazes me is what has been happening in Asia. The book has come out in translation in Korea, in mainland China, and in Taiwan. I've been to China twice in the last six weeks or so because the book has become a huge bestseller in China. [Editor's note: For more on the effect of the "gray rhino" in China, check out this July 17 CNN Money article.]

DEVIN STEWART: How do you explain that? What's going on there?

MICHELE WUCKER: I've been asking everybody there. I asked my publisher—they sent five people to the interviews I had with media there—a very senior editor, I asked him, I asked people who organized my speeches, asking everyone who would answer, "What is this?"

I kept getting this answer: "Well, there are these really big things that we need to deal with, and we're not dealing with them."

I said, "Well, that's the same in the United States, but they're not doing that."

One friend came up with an explanation that I think really hit the nail on the head. He said, "You're making it culturally okay to talk about things that scare people but that they don't have a tool to talk about."

DEVIN STEWART: Very interesting. Tell us about some of those gray rhinos that you spotted in China, given the popularity of this idea in China. What are they afraid of, or what should they be afraid of?

MICHELE WUCKER: Many people are very much afraid of a number of things. A lot of the questions I got at the speeches were about the environment and climate change. In China they're very worried about what the United States is doing, or rather what the United States is not doing, about climate change. Of course, they are very concerned about the smog and environmental issues in China.

I also heard a lot of concern about the economy, the real estate bubble, and the potential of that to create knock-on effects, which actually is one of my criteria for how you judge how important something is: Is this threat something that's isolated, or is it something that has the potential to create a domino effect in other things down the road? Certainly, as we saw in the United States, a real estate financial crisis can have consequences that ripple far out beyond the source of the problem.

DEVIN STEWART: What are some other characteristics you use to identify the gray rhinos on a day-to-day basis? I noticed you're on Twitter, you have a lot of follows, and everyone should go follow Michele. And I notice that you're collecting gray rhino stories on Twitter. How do you go about finding those stories?

MICHELE WUCKER: It's funny. Once you start writing about things, people bring them up. I get all these e-mails all the time: "Hey, is this a gray rhino?" "Hey, is that a gray rhino?"

The one I've been spending a lot of time on lately is artificial intelligence (AI) and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which actually is another issue in China. My translator in Shanghai was an artificial intelligence translator. It blew my mind when they told me that was what was going to happen. It was new for them, too. It was the first time that they had tried it out.

From my experience, it's going to be a while before the robot translators take over from the human ones. It was partly because I had a really fantastic human translator the night before. She was so good that, even though I couldn't understand the words of what she was translating, I knew exactly what she was saying when because she mimicked the expressions and the gestures. It's going to be so long before a robot can do that.

DEVIN STEWART: She understands artificial intelligence, but she has human intelligence as well. She has the emotional quotient (EQ) as well as the AI. Interesting.

MICHELE WUCKER: Exactly. And they're very aware of both the potential and the pitfalls of AI in China. There are a lot of statistics showing that in developed countries about half of the jobs are at risk from automation, but in developing countries, particularly countries that have relied on a very heavily manufacturing-based economic model, like say, China, they could lose two-thirds or more of jobs to robots.

The big unknown, of course, is how many new jobs will robots create, how much productivity will they create, and how will policymakers and businesses translate that increased productivity into benefits for everyone, not just the people with the capital to deploy the robots? So that's a huge global issue, and it's something that in China was very much a topic of discussion.

DEVIN STEWART: You're saying that the gray rhino is disruptive in the sense that—it's a buzzword in Silicon Valley—but you're saying that these are phenomena or factors that will change things in the way risk factors change things? In other words, they can be good or bad things. AI has both good factors and bad factors.

MICHELE WUCKER: Yes. You've really hit the nail on the head, and it's actually part of one of the ways that I've approached the metaphor in the book. When I came up with the gray rhino, I was talking to friends, saying: "It's big, it's huge, it's scary, dangerous, like with a horn." And the rhino popped into my head. The initial thought was something dangerous, and, of course, I hadn't seen a rhino since I was a little kid in the zoo, so what did I know about rhinos?

I, of course, had to go on safari for very serious research purposes. And that's when I started learning a lot more about the poaching crisis and the likelihood of rhinos going extinct during our lifetime; in fact, some subspecies have in recent years. And I thought, Wait a minute. We're a much bigger threat to rhinos than they are to us, and then I started feeling a little bit guilty for portraying the rhino as this scary thing.

So when I do speeches, I always talk about the question of "Is the gray rhino your friend or your foe?" The point of the gray rhino is that if you see it and if you pay attention to it, you are so far ahead of everyone else who is in many cases willfully ignorant.

You look at the companies, you look at all the big scandals we've had—Wells Fargo, Volkswagen, the General Motors' ignition switch, the Takata airbags, you can go on and on—in every single one of these cases people from the top to the bottom of the company knew that something very bad was going on. They miscalculated the probability that they would get in trouble for it; they miscalculated the total cost. It was much less expensive to fix the problem than to let it get to the levels that it did. So they made very bad decisions; seeing something coming at them, but making that bet that they were going to be able to leap out of the way in time, and they weren't.

People who see and deal with the rhino ahead of time actually can embrace it as their friend. So what you said about rhinos being good or bad, there's usually a mix. They're value-neutral. The challenge of thinking about gray rhinos is to turn a danger into a new path, into an opportunity, and really into a way to think differently.

DEVIN STEWART: And you have, I suppose for your clients but also for the general public, a gray rhino quiz. What are the types of personalities—what types of gray rhinos could one become or be?

MICHELE WUCKER: It's funny. The personalities actually came out of five stages of a gray rhino, from denial to action. They also are very closely tied to five key questions you can ask yourself to analyze a problem.

But the personalities, I had a lot of fun with it. I found this fantastic cartoonist, who drew up the images for me. There's the pancake, that's the person who got squished.


MICHELE WUCKER: They just didn't even see it coming at all. I love what the cartoonist did. He made this cute little expression on the rhino's face, going: "Oops. I'm sorry I squished you."


MICHELE WUCKER: It's adorable.

DEVIN STEWART: I'm sure it will be big in Asia, the cute rhino.

MICHELE WUCKER: The cute rhino with the little dimple. So that's the pancake.

Then there's the ostrich. That's the person who knows there's a problem, and he's sticking his head in the sand. It's muddling. It's basically coming up with a reason not to deal with what you know is there.

Then you have the Chicken Little. So I had a rhino in a little Halloween costume for a chicken.

DEVIN STEWART: That's "the sky is falling"? Is that panic or what?

MICHELE WUCKER: It's panic, and it's someone who doesn't necessarily size up a problem properly.

Of course, Chicken Little in the Aesop's fable is afraid of the acorn that fell on his head and is so freaked out by that that he runs right into the mouth of the big bad wolf. By not diagnosing something properly, and also by going into a panicked state, you often make the wrong decisions. You are more likely to act if you're panicked, if you feel something is urgent, but you're also much more likely to make the wrong decision. So we have Chicken Little.

Then we have the tourists on safari. This came from an experience I had on my safari to go find rhinos.

DEVIN STEWART: So our own personal experience.

MICHELE WUCKER: Yes. I was staying at a lodge on the top of a mountain. They put you in a big Jeep, Land Rover-type vehicle. And he was going up the hill, and he was saying, "Oh, there's a kudu, there's a this, there's a that." And I was looking and looking, and I thought, Wow, my eyes are bad, but I didn't know they were that bad.

It wasn't until that night that we were out with a German family who had been on safari for a few weeks already, and the teenage son says, "Look, there's 20 elephants over there!" I looked, and I'm like, Oh, my God, I really need to get my eyes checked, because I couldn't see the elephants. I, of course, learned that it's a skill. A few days later, I had learned how to spot them much better. They blend in. Even if it's a very large animal, if it's a ways away, it is hard to see.

So when you're a tourist on safari, you're trying to see it, you're doing your best, you're looking for it, you're learning. But you need a tracker. You need a driver. You need people whose expertise you can draw on.

DEVIN STEWART: You need a Michele. You need to hire Michele to help spot those rhinos.

MICHELE WUCKER: You need your rhino spotter. And actually your rhino-spotting team, which is something I talk about a lot.

Of course, the final personality is the game warden. I've got these two game wardens with the cutest little baby rhino you can possibly imagine with little hearts flying around them, and they're holding it, rocking it in their arms, and they're keeping it safe. The game warden is the kind of person who has regular habits where they check in; they do a reality check: "What's my gray rhino? How am I dealing with it?" They will have habits that are designed to catch gray rhinos when they're small and cute and keep them from getting big and scary.

DEVIN STEWART: So they've tamed their fear, in a sense?

MICHELE WUCKER: They've tamed their fear, they've made the rhino their friend, and they're actually taking care of the rhinos.

DEVIN STEWART: Wow. There is some very profound wisdom in that. It's sort of "be self-aware, don't panic, and overcome your fears." There's really ancient wisdom in there.

MICHELE WUCKER: In some ways. And maybe that's why it resonates so much in Asia right now. The real thing is to keep an eye out for it, realize that you're more likely than you might think to get run over by something very obvious. It's a really simple concept, but for many people it creates a lot of pushback. But it's really powerful.

DEVIN STEWART: You haven't taken the quiz yet, but if you did take the quiz, where do you think you would be? You'd be the warden, right?

MICHELE WUCKER: I would hope so. It's hard when you've invented something. I feel like it's kind of like cheating if I were to take the quiz.

DEVIN STEWART: You know what all the right answers are.

MICHELE WUCKER: It's like being the banker in Monopoly. It's not quite fair.

DEVIN STEWART: It's not fair.

Before we wrap up, Michele—we've covered a lot of ground here, and it is really wonderful to speak with you—are there any other gray rhinos that our listeners should be aware of that you've spotted, that need to be brought up around our conversation in Asia, in the United States, in U.S.-Asia relations, or anything globally as well?

MICHELE WUCKER: Absolutely. Of course, having spent a fair amount of time in Asia recently and with more on the schedule, I'm looking at that a lot. Every year I do a survey of what the top risks' lists tend to have consensus around. There are a lot of worries over China, partly because of economic imbalances, partly because of upcoming political changes.

China is very interesting in that it does take a much longer-term approach and that it's much easier for the government to make decisions about what to do and to do those. But that said, China has a lot of people. There are obviously a lot of gray rhinos there.

In the news a lot lately that I'm very worried about is, of course, the North Korea situation.

DEVIN STEWART: Is that a rhino too?

MICHELE WUCKER: Absolutely. It's very obvious, and it's one of those things that falls into a difficult category because nobody's really sure what to do about it. There are some ideas, but there are pros and cons to every one, and it's really hard to figure out what the right thing is to do.

I think China is a very important player in dealing with that. Also, the United States has had some influence in that in the past, but there has in the past been a much more consistent, predictable set of policies, and we don't have that anymore in the United States with our foreign policy with the current administration. So that unpredictability adds a whole new level of scariness to the North Korea gray rhino.

DEVIN STEWART: What about in the United States, whether it's politics, economics, what is the gray rhino here?

MICHELE WUCKER: It's interesting because there are so many things that anyone could point to as a particular problem. This is where looking at the chain of causation is so important: What's the real root of the problem?

Apolitically, staying away from whatever biases or ideologies people have, I think it's fairly safe to say that the root problem in the United States right now is this lack of trust in each other, this lack of civility, this lack—

DEVIN STEWART: On an individual level.

MICHELE WUCKER: On an individual and—

DEVIN STEWART: Communities.

MICHELE WUCKER: Communities, exactly. I think from the very most granular individual level up to cities, communities, political parties, to the very top levels of government, that we've lost this ability to come together and say: "Hey, okay. We have differences, but let's focus on what's best for the country and how to move it forward." That seems to have just absolutely crumbled. That is one of the things that you need both top-level approaches, and very much so, individual approaches.

That ties into a big problem Americans have right now, which is that so many people say: "I feel helpless. I feel like I can't do anything." I think that's why we got the election results that we did, is that people felt like they didn't have a voice, they didn't have power, so they were just going to uproot the whole system. And that's dangerous.

I think we should start with the fact that every single American has more power than they think to affect their community and their country, and that they also have more responsibility than they think. So it's really a question of: "What can I do to make this better? What can each one of us do to make this better?" And it's a whole other conversation as to what that might be, but I think that's where we really need to start, not with rearranging deck chairs on the Titanics of party, Congress, the administration, or anything, but really what do Americans have in common, what can we agree on, and how do we move forward together?

DEVIN STEWART: We recently had Tom Nichols in here from the U.S. Naval War College, who spoke on the death of expertise. That was his same conclusion, Michele, so I'm really glad to hear that. At least we're making progress in terms of identifying the problem, I think.


DEVIN STEWART: Before we go, Gray Rhino & Company, your company, you founded it, and it's based in Chicago. Do you have a quick plug for potential clients or anyone else who wants to get in touch with you?

MICHELE WUCKER: I'll start with the website, thegrayrhino.com; g-r-a-y, although e-y will get you there as well. I learned that gray with an A is the American version; gray with an E is the English version, that's how you remember—so thegrayrhino.com.

We do a lot of things, but we work with organizations, with companies, and even with individuals on helping to identify, prioritize, and strategize how to deal with the gray rhinos, whether it's typical organizational dynamics—anything from succession planning to changing markets to corporate culture—to a lot of the big policy-level questions, which of course I love after so many years as a journalist and in the think tank world.

It's really a way of helping people think through and analyze the situations in front of them, and also giving them tools that engage people emotionally and are more likely to help to motivate them and the people they need to motivate to make change happen.

DEVIN STEWART: And you are accepting new clients?

MICHELE WUCKER: I am indeed.

DEVIN STEWART: Wonderful. Good opportunity.

Michele Wucker is CEO of Gray Rhino & Company, also author of The Gray Rhino. Michele, thanks for coming today.

MICHELE WUCKER: Great to see you and talk with you, Devin. Thanks.

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