On the Subject of Black, Pink and Grued Elephants



By Kik Piney

18 August 2020



More Creatures in the Menagerie with the Black Elephants

Dear David,

I would first like to congratulate you on triggering an ongoing debate on Black Elephants[1] – the unlikely hybridization of a black swan with the elephant in the room. I was interested to read Bob Prieto’s article on this topic in the August edition[2], and would like to comment on an additional concept that he presented – i.e., the existence of “red swans[i]”. He uses this term to characterize situations that are considered as potential disasters and, as such, are addressed vigorously but then turn out, after the event, to have been a false alert. To integrate this concept into the Black Elephant menagerie, we also need a term to refer to a major concern that is initially treated in the same way as a black elephant, but later turns out not to be important – i.e., the outcome of the crossing of a red swan with the elephant in the room. The term “pink elephant” is ideally suited for this role, as it has traditionally been used to refer to strange hallucinations, sometimes brought on by alcohol or other drugs[ii].

Some situations labelled as pink elephants certainly do justify the name. However, in other cases, it can be that the distant trumpeting from a genuine black elephant was detected in time and the corresponding response was timely and effective, thereby shrinking the black elephant down to an insignificant size. This category of situation does of course need its own descriptive term. I propose “Grued Elephants” – named after the anti-hero Felonius Gru in the film Despicable Me who stole the top secret shrink ray that had been used to reduce a fully-grown elephant to the size of a puppy[iii].

The issue here is that, although analysis after the event can be instructive, it can also be deceptive. There is considerable debate around the potential “false alarm” raised by the WHO in 2009 about the H1N1 virus[iv], and the same might be said about the Millennium Bug – AKA Y2K – situation: was it a pink elephant[v], or a grued elephant[vi]?


To read entire Letter to the Editor, click here

How to cite this work: Piney, C. (2020). On the Subject of Black, Pink and Grued Elephants: More Creatures in the Menagerie with the Black Elephants, Letter to the Editor, PM World Journal, Vol. IX, Issue IX, September. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/pmwj97-Sep2020-Piney-black-pink-and-grued-elephants.pdf


[1] Pells, D.L. (2020). Black Elephants and maybe Project Management; PM World Journal, Vol. IX, Issue VI, June. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/pmwj94-Jun2020-Pells-black-elephants-and-maybe-project-management-editorial3.pdf

[2] Prieto, R. (2008). Black Elephants, PM World Journal, Vol. IX, Issue VIII, August. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/pmwj96-Aug2020-Prieto-Black-Elephants-featured-paper.pdf

[i] Term adopted by Gordon Woo, Calculating Catastrophe

[ii] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoysQe-2HS4

[iii] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GIV_r-C2W6g

[iv] See: https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/was-swine-flu-pandemic-2009-really-false-alarm-132962

[v] Harry Rosenthal, Risk Management Today, December 2014. Vol 24 No 10 – p. 239 &ff.

[vi] Peter de Jager: https://podcasts.apple.com/ca/podcast/episode-01-why-did-it-matter/id1455676429?i=1000461145685