Comebacks, Decisions and Resilience

23 Jan

There is a cultural fascination with comebacks, against the odds wins, and resurrection. For thousands of years cultures have been inspired by tales and mythologies of heroes facing quests which involve consequences so brutal and dangerous it’s impossible to imagine success. Within these mythologies are crucial lessons about decision making, risk and the role of resilience. The Greek hero Odysseus, for example, and his journey back home after the Trojan War, is a story of courageous decision making backed up with an array of innovation, tactics and strategy so adaptable in the face of uncertainty that any CEO would be put in awe of it. In this article I’m going to try and deconstruct episodes which could be labelled as comebacks but are far more illustrative of resilience and adaptability.

When presenting my research I went through a stage of describing, briefly, what I thought a “good” decision was. I suggested that the emphasis should be taken away from searching for perfect or near perfect decisions and instead placed on the question “could I handle the consequences of this decision?”. My thinking was this, once this question is asked, then thinking starts to focus on “what could those consequences be?” and crucially “what could go wrong and what would\could I do about it?”. The sum of these questions, hopefully, starts to produce the potential problems which could occur, and also an inventory of resources which could be used to face these problems. There needs to be some caution when doing this as two layers of bias can occur. Firstly, the problems identified are based only on what has been encountered in the past (risk as opposed to uncertainty), and secondly, there is overconfidence in the resources to overcome any problem identified. These two layers of bias can lead to people and organisations becoming ambushed by uncertainty, a version of a risk never before encountered, and which the resources aren’t set up to deal with. How well this ambush is dealt with is the comeback zone and requires adaptability and resilience. I’ll illustrate with an example from a few thousand years ago by returning to Odysseus.

When Odysseus finally headed off on his journey home he couldn’t have imagined what waited for him. Odysseus had a general idea, but he backed himself to handle the consequences-he had the confidence to keep going, kept himself ready for anything, was prepared to be knocked off course, and so kept his options open to adapt. If Odysseus had been overly rigid in his risk analysis, basing it on his previous journeys alone, he would have been left a gibbering and confused wreck when confronted with the Cyclops. However, he took this encounter pretty much in his stride. In other words, Odysseus remained ready for shocks, surprises and unexpected events; and this, I’m suggesting, is the anatomy of a comeback.

Gigerenzer (2014) talks of the role and function of “adaptive toolkits” when dealing with the unexpected, an array of actual and cognitive coping mechanisms which allow individuals and organisations to adapt, role with the punches, and Odysseus is good example. Adaptive toolkits are in many ways the opposite of carefully constructed and modelled risk registers. If the risk strategy encounters the unexpected, and the adaptive toolkit is absent, then the individual and organisation is sunk. Adaptive toolkits are like arsenals which can be used when under attack, if the arsenal is well stocked then the higher your confidence in fending off the attack. If the confidence is high (high enough) then the greater the cognitive space to innovate and adapt in the face of uncertainty- this is the comeback. The comeback is an array of tacit skills and coping mechanisms which can be used when the unexpected is encountered. It’s a flexible approach which absorbs shock and bounces back.

Most organisations don’t take the same approach as Odysseus. Instead they rely on modelling risk and stocking up on procedures and processes. These approaches don’t lend themselves to a comeback. If you Google business comebacks you’ll find some great inspiring stories (Apple 2001 for example) but in the grand scheme of things there aren’t that many. The reason- most organisations aren’t designed to comeback.


Gigerenzer, G. (2014) Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions. Penguin

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