Prison Break and Uncertainty

10 Nov

It might seem strange to highlight the television series Prison Break as a meditation on the relationship between risk, data and uncertainty, but I like to think it’s a near perfect example. Prison Break had a simple premise- a genius engineer (Michael) purposely gets convicted of armed robbery with the aim of breaking his brother (Lincoln), who is on death row (wrongly convicted), out of prison with the aid of the prison blue prints and a plan all tattooed onto his body. Michael entered the prison with a big data set, a plan, and the necessary skills. However, the unexpected inevitably got in the way.

Michael’s data and plans certainly took care of most risks, when things went wrong he had plans B & C. The data and plans accounted for the risks he had anticipated and calculated; however, things went really off course when Michael encountered uncertainty-events he couldn’t possibly have predicted. Prison Break did a great job of demonstrating not only the complexity of prison life with its constantly shifting allegiances but also the complexity of the world everyone involved lived in. Plans were constantly being adapted due to events which began many miles away from the prison and snowballed into huge problems, only visible at the last minute.

To adapt effectively to uncertainty, Michael had to often rely on the tacit skills of his criminal allies. Their collective years of operating in the underworld had given his fellow escapees a host of craft skills they could call upon to jury rig solutions fast; skills and experience Michael simply did not have. Eventually this combination of data, risk (contingency plans) and uncertainty (the ability to tacitly adapt to the unexpected) eventually got Michael and his brother out of prison.

If you imagine Michael as the CEO of Prison Break Inc. then he ran his organisation in the High Reliability style (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2007). Michael understood the value of planning, but not being so wedded to those plans that he was unable to adapt when they became impossible. It would have been pretty easy given the investment\ sacrifices he had made and the constant stresses of the various scenarios to fall into the spiral of the confirmation bias- a narrow frame of reference where contradictory evidence and interpretations are simply explained away (Kahaneman & Tversky, 2000). More significantly, he deferred to the tacit skills of those around him when his plans and data had reached their current limits.

To highlight this point, I’ll match Michael’s leadership of Prison Break Inc. against the features of High Reliability Organising

  • A pre occupation with failure- Michael was focused on learning from his mistakes and constantly tweaking his contingencies
  • A reluctance to simplify explanations- If something obvious presented itself it was explored and researched, not just accepted. This helped buy time when things went wrong and avoid errors
  • Sensitivity to operations- The strategy was to get Lincoln out of the prison and off death row, but the actions were always focused on what was going on right now. This enabled practices which weren’t working to be abandoned and new options explored
  • Commitment to resilience- Michael’s leadership was epitomised by his ability to recover from interruptions. He did not just have one big plan to deliver the strategy, he kept numerous options; a vast adaptive tool kit which made recovery from shocks and surprises that much easier (Gigerenzer, 2014)
  • Deference to expertise- When Michael’s plans had hit their limits, or he was indisposed, the tacit skills of local experts took up the slack. Neither Michael nor his team just relied on the formal plan and data.

The extreme environment Prison Break was set in and the immediacy of feedback on actions made it a decision making battlefield. It’s pure fantasy but still provides a useful analogy for examining how fast well thought out plans can recover from unexpected shocks and surprises.


Weick, K. E., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2007). Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in and Age of Uncertainty, Second Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (Eds.) (2000) Choices, values and frames. New York: Cambridge University Press

Gigerenzer, G. (2014) Risk Savvy- How to Make Good Decisions. Allen Lane.

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