Futures Playbook - Aurecon

Navigate Uncertainty. Anticipate. Act.

The Black Menagerie

black-menagerieThe Black Menagerie play helps to identify and categorise the different types of wild cards that could generate disruption in the future.

Wild cards are the unpredictable, unknown, or even unacknowledged issues and events that have an outsized impact on the business environment. This play guides you to identify the types of wild cards your organisation or project might face, helping to uncover blind spots and risks in your future operating environment.

The Black Menagerie identifies three different types of wild cards:

  1. Black Swans – events that have a low probability of occurring but have a high impact (for example a pandemic)
  2. Black Elephants – issues or events that have a high impact but are not being addressed in the present (for example climate change)
  3. Black Jellyfishes – issues or events that through feedback loops could escalate rapidly (like a financial crisis)

Too often, wild cards are treated as the same type of event (usually a Black Swan). However, understanding the differences between wild card events helps you map how change might unfold, and the different ways it could present itself such as an unexpected shock or an unaddressed long-term issue, and how you can act accordingly.

The Black Menagerie is based on the work of John Sweeney and Ziauddin Sardar, ‘The Three Tomorrows of Postnormal Times’.

Dynamics + Patterns

Why run this play?

This is a Dynamics + Patterns play that helps you to understand and analyse how change might occur.

You can use this play to help you:

  • Identify and explore the wild cards that could create change in your future
  • Understand where you might have blind spots
  • Identify what has the potential to cause unexpected change

How do I run this play?

Play Overview

6–8 30–60 minutes Easy

As a group, select a topic or issue to be investigated. Have a brief discussion about the issue, be sure to clarify the different animals in the menagerie so there is a shared understanding of the definitions.

Using Post-It notes, individually brainstorm wild card events that relate to your topic.

Some questions you may consider in addition to those on the canvas include:

  • Have there been any issues or events that have caught another industry by surprise?
  • What are the conversations we are not having?
  • What are examples of happenings we have seen spiral quickly in the past, and what might be some examples in the future?
  • Are there exciting technologies that are not ready yet that could quickly become important?
  • What are some unexpected events and decisions that have caused significant change to your industry in the past?

Using The Black Menagerie canvas, have each member of the group share their wild cards and where they think they should sit. If some ideas are similar, group them together on the canvas.

Now, as a group, discuss what you have uncovered. Some questions to ask yourselves may include:

  • Are there any items that are contentious?
  • Are you prepared for the Black Elephants?
  • What might you need to do about the Black Jellyfish?
  • Do you have your wild cards categorised appropriately for your organisation?
  • Do any of the wild cards represent opportunities? What might you need to do about them?

Finally, as a group, discuss what you have produced. What types of patterns have emerged? How do you feel about the patterns you have unpacked?


The Black Menagerie Canvas and Facilitation Guide by Aurecon is licensed under CC BY 4.0


Think broad and wide!
This activity will require you to think outside of the box and push the limits on what you believe is possible. There might be some ideas that seem farfetched or preposterous. Don’t dismiss them as these can be valuable.

Wild cards are external to the decisions and events that happen within an organisation. Focus on what causes change on the outside.

The Play: in action

Is COVID-19 a Black Swan or a Black Elephant?

COVID-19 is a Black Swan event: the type of virus, where it came from and when it appeared was unpredictable and of high impact. However, the conditions that lead to global pandemics and their increasing frequency fit the scope of a Black Elephant.

Pandemics are a consequence of known issues like deforestation, increasing interaction with native animals and denser and globally connected communities. Public health officials, futurists, and ecologists have been predicting that pandemics will be a more frequent occurrence, but what they cannot predict is when a virus will jump into the human population and rapidly spread.

Therefore, while global pandemics are a Black Elephant as the conditions for zoonotic viruses have been increasing; the specific timing and type of virus such as COVID-19 emerging could not be predicted, making it a Black Swan event.

COVID-19 has caused cascading impacts, especially for organisations that were thinking about or starting to digitise aspects of their business. For Aurecon, this has fast tracked the adoption of new business models and systems to support how we digitally deliver our services for business continuity.

Ready to find your future?

While this page gives you everything you need to run the Play yourself, you might prefer to work with the people who know the frameworks and theories best. Aurecon can help guide you through your Futures Playbook experience and help you navigate your digital future.

Contact us for an initial conversation

Next steps?

You can use this Strategy Play to identify what actions you need to take now to achieve your vision of the future.

To top

Unfortunately, you are using a web browser that Aurecon does not support.

Please change your browser to one of the options below to improve your experience.

Supported browsers: